The NSA can record and retrieve 100% of phone calls in foreign countries using the MYSTIC program, according to the Washington Post.
WASHINGTON — The National Security Agency faces new scrutiny after a published report that it has the capability of recording and retrieving 100% of phone calls in foreign countries.
The program, which is called MYSTIC, "reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere," the Washington Post reports.
The Post learned about the program through documents it obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
MYSTIC was launched in 2009, and the surveillance tool features "retrospective retrieval" capability, which allows the agency to rewind and review calls up to a month after they've taken place.
Last year's secret intelligence budget named five additional countries for which the MYSTIC program provides "comprehensive metadata access and content," with a sixth expected to be in place by last October, according to the Post report. But the secret budget does not indicate whether the NSA is currently recording and retrieving calls in those countries or is planning to.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines did not confirm or deny the existence of the program, but she said in a statement that the "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.
"Continuous and selective reporting of specific techniques and tools used for legitimate U.S. 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 protect," Vines added.
Snowden has offered a treasure trove of revelations about the NSA's spying techniques since last year. The MYSTIC program is the first one he's disclosed that suggests U.S. intelligence has the ability to conduct mass monitoring of the voice content of calls.
Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union deputy director, called the news about MYSTIC "chilling."
"The NSA has always wanted to record everything, and now it has the capacity to do so," he said. "The question now is simply whether we have the political will to impose reasonable limits on the NSA's authority – that is, whether we have the political will to protect our democratic freedoms."
In a speech in January to announce changes to NSA surveillance operations, President Obama suggested that the agency does not spy on foreign citizens unless national security merits it.
"Now let me be clear: our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments – as opposed to ordinary citizens – around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does," Obama said.
But some privacy advocates say Snowden revelation on MYSTIC raises questions about whether Obama's promised reforms ever had any teeth.
"This program further exposes the real limits of the president's proposed government surveillance reforms, which still allow for mass surveillance," said Greg Nojeim, director of Center for Democracy and Technology's freedom, security and technology program. "It's time for the United States to begin honoring its global human rights obligations and enact legal reforms that set reasonable limits on foreign surveillance practices."
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the White House would not comment on specific alleged intelligence activities.
She said Obama's policy directive on intelligence "makes clear that signals intelligence collected in bulk may only be used to meet specific security requirements: counterintelligence; counterterrorism; counterproliferation; cyber-security; force protection for our troops and allies; and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion."