Nearly two months after The Intercept revealed that the National Security Agency has used the Bahamas as a “test bed” for a powerful surveillance system that can collect and store an entire country’s phone calls for up to 30 days, government officials and residents of the Caribbean nation remain conflicted over the spying. The U.S., meanwhile, remains silent.
In a new video report, journalist and self-described “supersleuth” Nimrod Kamer–perhaps best known for his prodigious celebrity trolling skills–scored a trip to the sunny capital city of Nassau with cameraman Tom Bell to confront Bahamian politicians about the revelations and ask locals what they thought of the world’s greatest superpower collecting their private communications. The results were mixed.
“U.S. is surveilling the whole world,” Ryan Pinder, the Bahamas’ Minister of Finance, said with a shrug. “I’m not too worried about it.”
Other Bahamians seemed less comfortable. Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell declined to agree with Pinder’s position. Though he did not elaborate further, Mitchell has compared the targeting of his country to circumstances in Germany and Brazil, two nations where intensive NSA surveillance has also been revealed.
One man Kamer interviewed said he has filed suit against the U.S. government over the surveillance. “My right to privacy has been violated under international law,” the man said.
At the time of the reporting, The Intercept’s repeated requests for comment from the highest offices of the Bahamian government went unanswered. Multiple calls and emails to the Bahamas primary mobile communications provider, Bahamas Telecommunications Company, also fell on deaf ears. BTC later said that it was not “complicit” in the surveillance and neither was its parent company, Cable and Wireless.
Local media reports later revealed the U.S. State Department alerted Bahamian officials of The Intercept‘s investigation two weeks before the story was published. While the U.S. was apparently willing to alert the Bahamians about the impending story, the Americans have been less forthcoming with an official explanation for its surveillance of a Carnival Cruise destination. As of today, the U.S. has not presented an official response to Bahamian government inquiries regarding the NSA’s activities, despite vows to do so.
“We get generic answers, whatever answers they give,” Foreign Affairs Minister Mitchell said last month.
According to the documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Bahamas has been used as a guinea pig for a system that allows the surveillance agency to collect, retrieve and store the content of every phone call made through a nation’s mobile network for nearly a month. Access in the Bahamas was made possible with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and an unknown private sector partner, the documents revealed.
It is not at all clear whether Bahamian officials–either in government or the telecommunications industry–actually knew about the installation or maintenance of the surveillance system. According to the leaked documents, the entire point of the project was to keep host nations in the dark about NSA’s communications collection.
That has not stopped Bahamian lawmakers from turning the NSA’s surveillance into a political football. Amid the fallout, politicians from the dominant parties have pointed fingers at one another, each claiming the other needs to explain what it knew and when it.
“We need more information from our government,” Branville McCartney, leader of the opposition Democratic National Alliance party, told Kamer. “Our government should know what’s going on, and they ought to tell the Bahamian people.”