The NSA spying controversy has found its way back in the news, after a brief respite due to the foreign policy crisis with Russia and coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.
The latest revelation, provided by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, is just as concerning as previous ones. The Washington Post reports that the NSA has developed a program, with no approval from Congress, that has the ability to record and store every single phone call made in an unnamed foreign country:
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.
The Post didn’t name the country at which this extraordinary surveillance is aimed, at the request of administration officials, though the paper does note that the NSA is considering using it in up to six other countries. The White House, of course, declined to comment on the report.
Some may be passive to this latest revelation, but recall that reports of NSA spying on world leaders didn’t go over so well in the international community, and understandably so. Given that the Post didn’t name the country, we could assume that it’s a nation more hostile to the United States.
The conversations swept up by the program likely includes Americans who either live in the country or have made a call to the country. The NSA apparently considers those recorded conversations to be “incidental.” There isn’t much in the way of restrictions on what the NSA can collect from foreign sources, and there is, presumably, not much, if any oversight from Congress:
“Much of the U.S. government’s intelligence collection is not regulated by any statute passed by Congress,” said Timothy H. Edgar, the former director of privacy and civil liberties on Obama’s national security staff. “There’s a lot of focus on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is understandable, but that’s only a slice of what the intelligence community does.”
All surveillance must be properly authorized for a legitimate intelligence purpose, he said, but that “still leaves a gap for activities that otherwise basically aren’t regulated by law because they’re not covered by FISA.”
Beginning in 2007, Congress loosened 40-year-old restrictions on domestic surveillance because so much foreign data crossed U.S. territory. There were no comparable changes to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens and residents whose calls and e-mails now routinely cross international borders.
Now, keep in mind that apologists for domestic surveillance programs, including President Obama and intelligence officials, have insisted that the NSA is not collecting or listening in on Americans’ phone calls. This report undermines that claim. What’s more, one has to wonder how far away the intelligence agency is, given that it wants more expansive powers, to trying to get something like this to record domestic phone calls.