NSA collects all phone calls in a foreign country


— The National Security Agency’s collection systems record every single phone call in a country, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, The Washington Post reported.

— The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call,” according to a classified summary of the program.

— Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high, the Post said. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.

News services

The National Security Agency has been recording all of a foreign country’s phone calls, then listening to the conversations up to a month later, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

At the request of U.S. officials, the Post said it would not identify the targeted country or other countries where the program’s use was envisioned by officials.

The program is the latest revelation from a trove of classified documents that former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked to certain news organizations last year.

Most of those documents have described the U.S. collecting massive amounts of data and text. This program is different in that it records phone calls.

This NSA program dates to 2009 and is called MYSTIC, according to documents obtained by the Post. It is used to intercept conversations in one specific country, but documents show the NSA intends to use it in other countries, the Post said.

It records all conversations across the unidentified foreign country and stores billions of them for 30 days. The program wasn’t fully operational until 2011. One of the program’s senior managers told the Post that MYSTIC is comparable to a time machine, meaning voices from any call can be replayed without requiring the NSA to identify a person before the conversations are collected.

The conversations swept up likely include those of Americans who make calls to or from the targeted country. Civil libertarians are concerned that this program and others like it will target other countries and that the NSA will eventually hold the data longer than what was defined its original charter and use it for other reasons.

“This is a truly chilling revelation, and it’s one that underscores how high the stakes are in the debate we’re now having about bulk surveillance,” Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, said in a statement. “The NSA has always wanted to record everything, and now it has the capacity to do so.”

The White House would not comment on the specific program described by the Post. But National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said information sought by the U.S. intelligence community is, in many cases, hidden in the “large and complex system” of global communications.

“The United States must consequently collect signals intelligence in bulk in certain circumstances in order to identify these threats,” Hayden said in a statement. She said the presidential directive that authorizes this type of collection “makes clear that signals intelligence collected in bulk may only be used to meet specific security requirements.”

The NSA is authorized to collect in bulk signals intelligence — the type of intelligence that comes from radio signals and communications, for example, as long as the purpose of the collection is to counter threats regarding espionage, terrorism, proliferation, cyber security, safety of U.S. troops and transnational crime.

Bulk collection means collecting everything, even if some of what’s collected has nothing to do with national security. Most of the conversations collected under the NSA program would be irrelevant, the Post said.

The NSA would not confirm the existence of the MYSTIC program. But a spokeswoman said that the NSA’s collection programs are legal and done for national security purposes.

“NSA does not conduct signals intelligence collection in any country, or anywhere in the world, unless it is necessary to advance U.S. national security and foreign policy interests and to protect its citizens and the citizens of its allies and partners from harm,” NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in an email.

Vines said it jeopardizes national security when details about classified intelligence programs are made public.