The National Security Agency has a program capable of collecting 100 percent of phone calls from an entire country, according to documents viewed by the Washington Post.
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The program called MYSTIC, which can only maintain phone calls in foreign countries for a maximum of 30 days, collects "every single" call without needing to inform people that they might be targets beforehand, while RETRO allows analysts to retrieve this information. Other intelligence agencies, in addition to the NSA, have access to RETRO, the Post reported.
Of these calls, only a small fraction are listened to, but the actual numbers and the amount they're clipping for long-term storage is still high.
The program allows analysts to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call," a senior manager who is involved but remained unnamed in the Post's story said.
According to the Post, this program targeted its first nation in 2011 and planning documents indicated that other operations were anticipated for other countries as well. The Post is not naming targeted countries at the request of officials.
The tools' use is regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, but privacy experts voiced concern that this should not be used as a cover-all for surveillance. Timothy Edgar, the former director of privacy and civil liberties in the Obama administration's national security staff, told the Post that surveillance cannot be conducted just for its own sake.
Edgar said it leaves "gap for activities that otherwise basically aren’t regulated by law because they’re not covered by FISA.”
"This further exposes the NSA's capacity and willingness to monitor the private lives of American citizens and innocent people around the world with shockingly limited restraint," Greg Nojeim, Director of Freedom, Security and Technology for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in an emailed statement. "It's clear that U.S. law is not up to the task of controlling the NSA's surveillance programs, especially those directed at people abroad."
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, some officials told the Post that Americans in countries where RETRO operates could have their phone calls collected.
Though Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, did not comment about the "alleged intelligence activities" specifically, she told the Post 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.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to answer questions Tuesday about the program, saying he hadn't seen the report.
"We don't, as a general rule, comment on every specific allegation or report," he added but noted steps the president presented in January to "significantly reform our activity."
Watch his response:
Information about this program was revealed from the cache of documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden.