By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
AFTER more than a week with no answers from Americans or “hard facts” over spying claims, Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell said he plans to raise concerns over allegations at a regional meeting this week.
Pointing to the level of public agitation over the issue, Mr Mitchell said his ministry also plans to approach US Secretary of State John Kerry about the matter directly.
He underscored that it was important to “hold everybody to the same moral and ethical standard regardless of their size, power, and wealth”.
Mr Mitchell said: “(US government) indicated that at a particular time there will be a response on these matters to the Bahamas. It has been more than a week since that has transpired, we have not received any further information and now we are kicking it up to an even higher level in order to get the answers which we think are required.
“I don’t want to speculate on what the Cabinet will decide post-that, except to say as a general proposition we intend to stand up for the rule of law for the protection of the privacy of Bahamians and to hold all of our international partners to their own moral standards and that’s the general position.”
Mr Mitchell said: “What is important is, we need to know what the facts are. Now certain undertakings were given to us when the professional people met in Washington, with regard to a response to this because of the public concern about it and our (government’s) own concern that on the face of this, the law appears to have been violated, if the reports prove to be true.
He said: “It’s been more than a week. Social media is alive with this, which means that the Bahamian population is agitated over it.”
At a press conference yesterday, Mr Mitchell said that an officer within his ministry was appointed to compile information in the public sphere, and findings from the government’s internal investigation into the Ministry of National Security, the Office of the Attorney General and the Royal Bahamas Police Force.
To date, Mr Mitchell said that all relevant authorities have denied knowledge or authorisation for American monitoring; however, he added that there has been no response from former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham.
Mr Mitchell said: “When you look at the Listening Devices Act, you will see there are three agencies that are involved in listening – in a lawful sense – to people’s conversations. What we know is that our officers have indicated that they are unaware of any such authorisation, that’s what we know from us. We’ve challenged the other side to say what they know about it, all of their officers have responded, aside from the former prime minister, to say we did not authorise it, we know nothing about it.
“The fact is the allegations are still out there and as the government of the day, we have to get to the bottom of this, and if there is unlawful activity then we have to make every effort to stop it.”
Claims that the US is monitoring cell calls in the Bahamas emerged last week in an article posted on Firstlook.org which reported that the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) is “secretly intercepting, recording and archiving” the audio of every cellphone conversation in the Bahamas.
The information is reportedly one of many documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was granted a year’s asylum in Russia last June after being sought by his native America.
Last week, former National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest denied giving any consent to the NSA to record cell phone conversations in the Bahamas.
His comments came a day after it was reported that, according to confidential documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the highest levels of cell phone surveillance took place shortly before the 2012 general election, when the Ingraham administration was in power.
Mr Turnquest said as far as he knows, neither he nor anyone else in the former government gave any approval to the US to monitor local cell phone activity.
Noting editorials on the issue in local newspapers, Mr Mitchell yesterday said: “Across the board, this is a matter of concern and the government cannot remain silent in the face of it. It seems to me that the logical conclusion to it, once you find out whether the law has been broken, then you’ve got to ask people to stop and what follows from that.”
He added: “It is very important because it goes to the very essence of the rights of Bahamians, and as I said you don’t have to step very far to see the level of agitation over this. A society survives, civilisation survives, our international relationships survive, based on the rule of law and a code of conduct and understanding about how we behave towards one another.”
Mr Mitchell and a foreign service team are expected to leave for the annual General Assembly meeting of the Organisation of American States in Asuncion, Paraguay today.
Upon his return, Mr Mitchell said he hoped to brief parliament on or before his budget contribution. “This will be the occasion for us to brief colleague ministers on the most recent developments here in the Bahamas with regard to the recent allegations of the unauthorised recording by the United States of mobile calls made to and from the Bahamas.”
He added: “There is to be a meeting between the two sides on this matter and it is my hope that some satisfactory answers will be obtained at that meeting.”