WikiLeaks has threatened to unilaterally release the name of an as-yet unnamed country in which every cell phone call is recorded by the National Security Agency, despite the decision by other news outlets to withhold that information for fear of stoking violence.
That announcement comes after a war of words over Twitter between WikiLeaks and journalists at The Intercept, which reported Monday that the NSA collects cell phone metadata in Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya, and records and keeps for up to a month all cell phone calls in the Bahamas and one unnamed country. The Intercept declined to release the name of that country, the outlet says, due to "credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence." The Intercept report is based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The Intercept is a media group launched earlier this year by a group of journalists including two of those originally granted access to the Snowden documents, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. The existence of this specific NSA recording program, code named MYSTIC, was previously reported by The Washington Post, which declined to name any of the countries involved.
WikiLeaks' threat to publish the identity of the redacted country, if credible, suggests the organization has obtained access to documents leaked by Snowden or has been informed of the country's identity by someone with access to the documents. Snowden has said he did not leak documents directly to WikiLeaks, but the key players in both organizations—Greenwald, Poitras, WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange—are well acquainted with one another.
According to the report, the NSA obtained access to the Bahamas’ cell phone networks by piggy backing on access legally obtained by the Drug Enforcement Agency, with the DEA’s cooperation. The Intercept declined to report the code name for a private firm that allows access to cell phone data in the Bahamas due to "a specific, credible concern that doing so could lead to violence."
The program, codenamed SOMALGET, is part the NSA’s umbrella program MYSTIC, under which, The Intercept reports, the agency also collects metadata on the telecommunications of “several other countries, including Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya,” similar to the telecom surveillance the NSA conducts in the United States.
Rather than the anti-terrorism work routinely used to justify the NSA’s surveillance activities, SOMALGET, according to NSA documents quoted by The Intercept, exists primarily as a part of the drug war to monitor “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers.”
In a statement to TIME, NSA spokesperson Vanee’ Vines did not deny the existence of the program but said, “The fact that the U.S. government works with other nations, under specific and regulated conditions, mutually strengthens the security of all." Vines confirmed that the scope of the agency’s mandate extends well beyond counterterrorism efforts.
"The Agency collects data to meet specific security and intelligence requirements such as counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, cyber security, force protection for U.S. troops and allies, and combating transnational crime.”