NSA Spying on Content of Foreign Phone Conversations


The NSA now has a tool that can collect and temporarily store the content of every single foreign phone conversation in at least one country.

The latest in the slow but steady trickle of leaks dripping out of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden reportedly shows that the U.S. spying agency has the capacity to recall entire foreign phone call conversations for as long a month after the fact.

The program, according to a Washington Post report citing leaked documents and people with direct knowledge of NSA operations, is called MYSTIC. MYSTIC is a voice intercept program and it reportedly launched in 2009.

The database behind the program stores the contents of each phone conversation for one month, after which point the newest phone call conversation replaces the oldest one. According to the documents viewed by the Washington Post, MYSTIC’s “retrospective retrieval” tool reached it’s operational capacity in its first target country sometime in 2011. The NSA codename for that tool is RETRO.

The Washington Post withheld certain information from its report at the urging of U.S. officials who had expressed concern that the publication could potentially reveal the identity of the target nation in question. Separate planning documents written two years later suggest that the NSA may have initiated the program for use in other countries following its initial success. In fact, the report – citing information procured from secret intelligence budget documents – claims that MYSTIC provides “comprehensive metadata access and content,” from five different countries, with a sixth in the works. It is not clear whether the NSA has full voice intercept and recall capabilities in those countries.

In a summary of the program, the NSA reportedly described RETRO as having the capacity to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” The report claims that while law enforcement analysts only listen to a small fraction of one percent of the total calls, they ultimately end up listening to the contents of a large number of conversations.

More specifically, the agency and its analysts are reportedly pulling and sending off millions voice clippings – or “cuts” as they call them – from the contents of these phone conversations for permanent or long term storage every month.

A National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, declined to comment specifically to the Washington Post. However, more broadly, she did say that 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.”

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines scolded the newspaper in an email statement, saying that “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.”

Present and former intelligence officials speaking under the condition of anonymity told the Washington Post that RETRO would certainly end up collecting the phone call contents of U.S. citizens in the country in which it was first rolled out. This – of course – means that MYSTIC and the tool behind it directly contradicts claims made repeatedly by NSA officials and spokespeople, namely that they are not using their tools to spy directly on innocent U.S. citizens.

This latest revelation comes on the heels of another that suggested the NSA had mimicked Web servers belonging to the world’s most populous social network in order to pilfer information via man-on-the-side attacks. Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg condemned the NSA for this behavior, which – for what it’s worth – the agency has denied.

On Monday, members of the infamous Church Committee (officially known as the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities), penned a letter to President Obama and members of Congress urging them to form a committee to investigate the NSA. The Church Committee very famously investigated intelligence wrongdoings that became apparent following the Watergate scandal.

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