By KYLE WALKINE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE allegations of possible surveillance of cellphone calls in the Bahamas are “startling” and, if proven, then the behaviour would be “clearly illegal”, Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell said yesterday.
Mr Mitchell said the government is investigating the accuracy of a report that revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States allegedly intercepting and recording all cellphone conversations within the Bahamas.
At the moment, Mr Mitchell said the government is unable to determine whether the information in the article posted on The Intercept’s website is accurate.
“It would also represent a great moral failing on the part of its perpetrators, in addition to illegality which challenge the founding principles of the rule of law. It would also be an invasion of the privacy of the individual, a cherished democratic value and a legal right,” the Minister said.
According to Mr Mitchell, the Bahamian charge d’affaires in Washington, DC, has contacted the US Foreign Office in search of an explanation in addition to the Bahamas Ambassador to the United Nations, Eugene Newry, meeting with them as well.
The Foreign Affairs Minister also said that two weeks prior to Monday’s publication of the article government had been warned of its development by an official at the US Embassy.
However, Mr Mitchell, addressing reporters at the Diplomatic Lounge of the Lynden Pindling International Airport, said he first learned of the information on Monday.
He also noted that the allegations in the documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden are believed to have taken place during a period around 2011, when Hubert Ingraham’s Free National Movement (FNM) was the government of the Bahamas.
The Tribune has contacted the NSA to confirm the validity of the information revealed. They have since sent a statement neither confirming nor denying the truthfulness of it.
It read: “Every day, NSA provides valuable intelligence on issues of concern to all Americans – such as international terrorism, cyber crime, international narcotics trafficking and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The fact that the US government works with other nations, under specific and regulated conditions, mutually strengthens the security of all.”
“NSA’s efforts are focused on ensuring the protection of the national security of the United States, its citizens, and our allies through the pursuit of valid foreign intelligence targets. Moreover, all of NSA’s efforts are strictly conducted under the rule of law and provide appropriate protection for privacy rights.”
As far as the negative impacts the discovery could have on the country’s financial and tourism industries, Mr Mitchell believes the government is able to handle it just as well as other countries that have been caught in the same predicament have been able to.
“We’ve seen this play out with countries and leaders across the world,” he said. “Angela Merkel, of Germany, and the president of Brazil have all suffered the indignity of this kind of report.”
“If you look at the way those countries responded, the fundamentals did not change in the relationship, although I’m sure they made adjustments in their various policies and how they protect the data in their countries. I guess regardless of what the truth is of this, the Bahamas would be taking a similar look at things like data protection, the security of its communications and how those communications ought to be protected.
“Interestingly enough, in discussing the matter with the attorney general this morning the government is still studying the Privy Council’s ruling in the recent appeal, which took place on a drug matter that considering the Listening Devices Act here in the Bahamas. As a result of that the legislation is being reviewed in any event.”
Mr. Mitchell also claimed that FNM Deputy Leader Loretta Butler is to blame for having caused confusion over privacy in the Bahamas when she spoke of the illegal parameters to which the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) is operating.
“One wonders if whether or not the FNM has some answers to give to all of this NSA talk as they were the ones in power when some, or most or all of this occurred,” he said.
“Maybe that’s the reason why we’re talking all this smokescreen about the NIA. The NIA as it is now constituted is simply an aggregation of people drawn from various law enforcement bodies. It really is more concerned with an administrative function more than anything else. There’s nothing intrusive about it. There’s nothing illegal about it. There’s nothing unlawful about it and nothing is being spied on by any member of the public here. That is simply not the case. Anybody who puts that forward simply doesn’t have the truth within them and is just spreading idle propaganda.”
Meanwhile Mrs. Butler-Turner, in a statement yesterday said: “I think there are two very important questions that the Bahamian people would need answered today. First of all whether the government is looking after the interest of the Bahamian people in determining from the United States government, either diplomatically or through its intelligence, to determine if they are in fact spying and capturing all of our cellphone conversations. That is a job for the government which I understand, they said they will do.”
When asked to comment on the matter Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis said he preferred to get the facts first before giving an opinion.
Mr Mitchell is now in Georgetown, Guyana attending the 17th Council for Foreign and Community Relations (COFCOR) where he plans on shedding light on the issue as he believes the Bahamas is the only CARICOM nation affected by the purported cellphone tapping.