The National Security Agency reportedly has a system in place that makes a record of “100 percent” of the telephone calls in an unnamed foreign country, and keeps the recordings for up to a month.
The program, dubbed MYSTIC by the NSA, is the first to be made public in which the spy agency vacuums up the entire telephone activity of a country. At the request of the NSA, The Washington Post, which revealed the program’s existence Tuesday, withheld from the publication the name of the country in which MYSTIC is deployed.
The program was launched in 2009 but reached full operational capacity—including with the “RETRO” tool that allows an analyst to rewind the phone calls of a country back up to one month—in 2011. According to an NSA document leaked to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the RETRO tool allows analysts to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.”
The MYSTIC program, whose existence the Post says it verified with an anonymous “senior manager for the program,” represents a sizeable leap from the NSA’s previously revealed bulk collection of cell phone metadata, like time stamps and call duration.
Documents leaked by Snowden suggest MYSTIC will soon be—or already has been—expanded to additional countries.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the NSA over its domestic surveillance activities, called the news a “chilling revelation.”
“The NSA has always wanted to record everything, and now it has the capacity to do so,” Jaffer said in an emailed statement. “The question now is simply whether we have the political will to impose reasonable limits on the NSA’s authority – that is, whether we have the political will to protect our democratic freedoms.”
In response to a query from the Post an NSA spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the program but accused the newspaper of damaging U.S. national security, saying “continuous and selective reporting of specific techniques and tools used for legitimate U.S. foreign intelligence activities is highly detrimental to the national security of the United States and of our allies, and places at risk those we are sworn to protect.”