National Security Agency (NSA) Director General Keith Alexander. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
The US National Security Agency has created a surveillance
system that can record all phone calls in a targeted foreign
nation, allowing it to play back and listen to conversations
up to 30 days later, the Washington Post reported today.
The newspaper cited unnamed sources with direct knowledge of
the system as well as documents supplied by former NSA
contractor Edward Snowden, who since last year has leaked
extensive data revealing sweeping American spying activities.
The voice interception program is known as MYSTIC and started
in 2009, with its "retrospective retrieval" capability,
called RETRO, reaching full strength in 2011 against the
first target nation, the Post reported.
The newspaper said that at the request of US officials, it
was withholding details that could be used to identify the
nation where the system is being used or others where it
might be used in the future. The Post cited documents that
envisioned similar US spying operations in other nations.
A classified summary of the system said the collection effort
was recording "every single" conversation nationwide in the
first target country, storing billions of conversations in a
30-day rolling buffer that clears out the oldest calls as new
ones are made, the Post reported.
A senior manager for the program likened it to a time machine
that can replay voices from any phone call without the need
to identify a person for spying in advance, the newspaper
The Post said that no other disclosed NSA program captures a
nation's telephone network in its entirety.
Current and former US officials quoted anonymously by the
Post said large numbers of conversations involving Americans
would be gathered using the system.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, at his regular news
briefing on Tuesday, sidestepped a question about the Post
article, saying that "we don't, as a general rule, comment on
every specific allegation or report."
"We make clear what activity the NSA and ... our intelligence
community engages in, and the fact that they are bound by our
laws and the oversight of three branches of government,"
Carney told reporters.
Carney also noted that President Barack Obama announced a
series of steps in January to "significantly reform our
Obama on Jan. 17 began reining in the vast collection of
Americans' phone data and banned US eavesdropping on the
leaders of close allies in a series of limited reforms
triggered by the revelations from numerous documents leaked
In a statement published by the Post, White House National
Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden refused to
comment on "specific alleged intelligence activities."
But Hayden said "new or emerging 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," the Post reported.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines told the Post that "continuous
and selective reporting of specific techniques and tools used
for legitimate US 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
Snowden last year fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where
he has asylum. The United States wants him returned to face