The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.
A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.
The voice interception program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009. Its RETRO tool, short for “retrospective retrieval,” and related projects reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere.
In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.
The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.
At the request of U.S. officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.
No other NSA program disclosed to date has swallowed a nation’s telephone network whole.
Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a “unique one-off capability,” but last year’s secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides “comprehensive metadata access and content,” with a sixth expected to be in place by last October.
The budget did not say whether the NSA now records calls in quantity in those countries or expects to do so. A separate document placed a high priority on planning “for MYSTIC accesses against projected new mission requirements,” including “voice.”
The emblem of the MYSTIC program depicts a cartoon wizard with a telephone-headed staff. Among the agency’s bulk collection programs disclosed over the past year, its focus on the spoken word is unique. Most of the programs have involved the bulk collection of metadata — which does not include call content — or text, such as e-mail address books.
Telephone calls are often thought to be more ephemeral and less suited than text for processing, storage and search. And there are indications that the call-recording program has been hindered by the NSA’s limited capacity to store and transmit bulky voice files.
In the first year of its deployment, a program officer wrote that the project “has long since reached the point where it was collecting and sending home far more than the bandwidth could handle.”
Based on RETRO’s internal reviews, the NSA has a strong motive to deploy it elsewhere. In the documents and in interviews, U.S. officials said RETRO is uniquely valuable when an analyst uncovers a new name or telephone number of interest.
With up to 30 days of recorded conversations in hand, the NSA can pull an instant history of the subject’s movements, associates and plans. Some other U.S. intelligence agencies also have access to RETRO.
Highly classified briefings cite examples in which the tool offered high-stakes intelligence that would not have existed under traditional surveillance programs in which subjects are identified for targeting in advance. In contrast with most of the government’s public claims about the value of controversial programs, the briefings supply names, dates, locations and fragments of intercepted calls in convincing detail.
Present and former U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to provide context for a classified program, acknowledged that large numbers of conversations involving Americans would be gathered from the country where RETRO operates.
The NSA does not attempt to filter out their calls, defining them as communications “acquired incidentally as a result of collection directed against appropriate foreign intelligence targets.”
Under the NSA’s internal “minimization rules,” those intercepted communications “may be retained and processed” and included in intelligence reports. The agency generally removes the names of U.S. callers, but there are several broadly worded exceptions.
An independent group tasked by the White House to review U.S. surveillance policies recommended that incidentally collected U.S. calls and e-mails — including those obtained overseas — should nearly always “be purged upon detection.” Obama did not accept that recommendation.
RETRO and MYSTIC are carried out under Executive Order 12333, the traditional grant of presidential authority to intelligence agencies for operations outside the United States.
UPDATE 05/19/2014 via TheIntercept:
In March, The Washington Post revealed that the NSA had developed the capability to record and store an entire nation’s phone traffic for 30 days. The Post reported that the capacity was a feature of MYSTIC, which it described as a “voice interception program” that is fully operational in one country and proposed for activation in six others. (The Post also referred to NSA documents suggesting that MYSTIC was pulling metadata in some of those countries.) Citing government requests, the paper declined to name any of those countries.
The Intercept has confirmed that as of 2013, the NSA was actively using MYSTIC to gather cell-phone metadata in five countries, and was intercepting voice data in two of them. Documents show that the NSA has been generating intelligence reports from MYSTIC surveillance in the Bahamas, Mexico, Kenya, the Philippines, and one other country, which The Intercept is not naming in response to specific, credible concerns that doing so could lead to increased violence. The more expansive full-take recording capability has been deployed in both the Bahamas and the unnamed country.
UPDATE 05/23/2014 via WikiLeaks:
The National Security Agency has been recording and storing nearly all the domestic (and international) phone calls from two or more target countries as of 2013. Both the Washington Post and The Intercept (based in the US and published by eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar) have censored the name of one of the victim states, which the latter publication refers to as country “X”.
Both the Washington Post and The Intercept stated that they had censored the name of the victim country at the request of the US government. Such censorship strips a nation of its right to self-determination on a matter which affects its whole population. An ongoing crime of mass espionage is being committed against the victim state and its population. By denying an entire population the knowledge of its own victimisation, this act of censorship denies each individual in that country the opportunity to seek an effective remedy, whether in international courts, or elsewhere. Pre-notification to the perpetrating authorities also permits the erasure of evidence which could be used in a successful criminal prosecution, civil claim, or other investigations.
We know from previous reporting that the National Security Agency’s mass interception system is a key component in the United States’ drone targeting program. The US drone targeting program has killed thousands of people and hundreds of women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in violation of international law. The censorship of a victim state’s identity directly assists the killing of innocent people.
Although, for reasons of source protection we cannot disclose how, WikiLeaks has confirmed that the identity of victim state is Afghanistan. This can also be independently verified through forensic scrutiny of imperfectly applied censorship on related documents released to date and correlations with other NSA programs.
We do not believe it is the place of media to “aid and abet” a state in escaping detection and prosecution for a serious crime against a population.
Consequently WikiLeaks cannot be complicit in the censorship of victim state X. The country in question is Afghanistan.
The Intercept stated that the US government asserted that the publication of this name might lead to a ’rise in violence’. Such claims were also used by the administration of Barack Obama to refuse to release further photos of torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
While one might seriously question the moral exceptionalism which would deny another nation and its people the right to react to a mass rights infringement in a manner of its own choosing, such claims of risk by the US government have in any event consistently fallen short.