Citing previously unpublished documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and statements from individuals with direct knowledge of the effort, the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani wrote that the US-administered surveillance system is capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls.
The program, “MYSTIC,” was launched back in 2009, according to the Post, but by 2011 it was ready to be rolled-out at full capacity and was subsequently deployed against at least one target nation. The Post says they are withholding details “that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned” upon the request of US officials.
Once it was ready to put to the test in 2011, MYSTIC and its “retrospective retrieval” tool known as RETRO were being used to indiscriminately record “every single” conversation occurring across the entire target country, the Post reported.
Those calls — “billions,” according to the Post — are stored for 30 days, and the oldest conversations are purged as new ones are logged. Once the content entered the NSA’s system, however, analysts are able to go back and listen in as much as a month later to find information on a person who might never have been suspected of a crime at the time that their initial conversation was collected unbeknownst to them by the US government.
Unlike the surveillance effort previously exposed by Mr. Snowden in which the US intelligence community compels telecommunication companies for the metadata pertaining to millions of Americans on a regular basis, the latest program to be exposed does more than divulge the basic user info and call duration details provided by metadata. Combined, MYSTIC and RETRO let the NSA collect the actual voiced communications of foreign parties, and without requiring the agency to explain why. Instead, the program systemically logs actual content, which the NSA can choose to disseminate at a later time if and when it decides to.
The Post said that documents provided by Mr. Snowden, a former systems administrator who has exposed a number of previously secret NSA programs since last June, was corroborated by government officials, including one senior manager who equated the surveillance system’s capabilities as being akin to a “time machine.”