WASHINGTON – 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. Outside experts have sometimes described that prospect as disquieting but remote, with notable implications for a growing debate over the NSA’s practice of bulk collection abroad.
Bulk methods capture massive data flows without the use of discriminants, as President Barack Obama put it in January. By design, they vacuum up all the data they touch – meaning that most of the conversations collected by RETRO would be irrelevant to U.S. national security interests.
In a statement, Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said new or emerging threats are often hidden within the large and complex system of modern global communications, and the United States must consequently collect signals intelligence in bulk in certain circumstances in order to identify these threats.
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 high priority on planning for MYSTIC accesses against projected new mission requirements, including voice.
In a presidential policy directive, Obama instructed the NSA and other agencies that bulk acquisition may be used only to gather intelligence on one of six specified threats, including nuclear proliferation and terrorism. The directive, however, also noted that limits on bulk collection do not apply to signals intelligence data that is temporarily acquired to facilitate targeted collection.
Among the NSA’s bulk collection programs disclosed over the past year, MYSTIC’s focus on the spoken word is unique. Most of the programs have involved the bulk collection of either metadata – which does not include content – or text, such as email address books.