The National Security Agency has developed a system of surveillance that allows it to collect all of a country’s telephone calls. The capability envelops this nation’s entire telephone network and collects the content of conversations, many which are from Americans who “telephone, visit and work in the target country,” according to The Washington Post.
The report comes from Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani and revelations on this top secret surveillance program come from documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The “voice interception program” called MYSTIC started in 2009. A RETRO tool enables “retrospective retrieval” and functions like a “time machine.”
A “call buffer opens a door ‘into the past,’” according to the Post, and enables users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” The entirety of calls are typically not listened to by analysts, however, “millions of voice clippings, or ‘cuts,’ are sent “for processing and long-term storage.” And, for up to 30 days, analysts are able to “replay voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.”
This makes it possible to “pull an instant history of the subject’s movements, associates and plans” and to collect “names, dates, locations, fragments of intercepted calls in convincing detail”—information which is shared with “some other US intelligence agencies.” The collection is being conducted under Executive Order 12333.
The cover slide for the surveillance program features an image of a wizard. Atop the wizard’s staff is a cellphone. Coming out of the wizard’s left hand is a spark of light. Stylistically, it’s as if an NSA employee who was hooked on “Magic: The Gathering” as a kid was given an opportunity to design the logo for the program.
The Post’s report indicates, “Ubiquitous voice surveillance, even overseas, pulls in a great deal of content from Americans.” The NSA asserts that this content is “acquired incidentally as a result of collection directed against appropriate foreign intelligence targets.”
Obama issued a presidential policy directive outlining six threats that would justify bulk surveillance. Two of the threats included terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
“An independent group tasked by the White House to review U.S. surveillance policies recommended that incidentally collected US calls and emails— including those obtained overseas— should nearly always “be purged upon detection.’” But the Post notes that Obama rejected this recommendation.
“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,” Jaffer declared in a statement. “The NSA has always wanted to record everything, and now it has the capacity to do so. 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.”
Amnesty International’s Zeke Johnson said in a statement, “The NSA is making George Orwell seem unimaginative. If true, this latest revelation should be a clarion call for reform. By its very nature, the dragnet collection of communications content violates the right to privacy enshrined in international law.”
The documents provided suggest the NSA has plans to expand the use of this program and target other countries.
So, what is the name of the country where this capability is being used?
“At the request of US officials, The Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.”
Previously, the Associated Press agreed to withhold the name of the country where President Barack Obama was potentially planning to launch a drone strike to kill another American citizen.
The AP explained the decision, “The Associated Press has agreed to the government’s request to withhold the name of the country where the suspect is believed to be because officials said publishing it could interrupt ongoing counterterror operations.” But, before the day was over, the Los Angeles Times reported the country was Pakistan.
In June of last year, when Snowden’s disclosures first began to be published, The Guardian reported on a program called “Boundless Informant” that had been used for a period of 30 days ending in March 2013.
Iran was the country where the “largest amount of intelligence was gathered,” with “more than 14 billion reports in that period.” In Pakistan, 13.5 billion reports had been gathered. In Jordan, 12.7 billion reports had been gathered. In Egypt, 7.6 billion reports had been gathered. And, in India, 6.3 billion reports had been gathered.
Presumably, this tool used to collect the content of all telephone calls of people in one single country is being used on one of these countries, and the tool is sweeping up numerous conversations between that country’s citizens that are “irrelevant to US national security interests.” But does that mean the content is not being shared with the government of that country?
During the trial of Chelsea Manning, who was sentenced to prison for 35 years for acts related to providing over a half million documents to WikiLeaks, the US military sought to hold Manning responsible for “complicating” tensions between the US and Pakistan when diplomatic cables from the US State Department were released.
Military prosecutor, Cpt. Joe Morrow, had Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata, who served as a deputy commander of the Office of Defense Representative to Pakistan (ODRP)—a defense attaché for the US Embassy in Islamabad from July 2009 to September 2011—take the stand. He testified on why the relationship with Pakistan was “important” to US national security and told the military court the Pakistan military was combatting the “same violent extremist” enemy in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas that NATO and US forces are combatting in Afghanistan. The border is “porous” and “this adversary has the ability to flow across the border” with a “great deal of impunity.” Therefore, anything the US can do to support the Pakistan military’s effectivness is important.
Nagata also stated Pakistan is a “nuclear armed state” under “significant threat from violent extremist organizations.” The United States has an interest in securing Pakistan to prevent a connection from being made between terrorist and extremist organizations and the nuclear arsenal. There also is a “long history of armed confrontation between Pakistan and India” and anything that destabilizes the relationship can affect the “US national interest.”
However, there have been a number of policies or developments that have inflamed tensions between the US and Pakistan. The SEAL team operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the CIA’s use of a fake polio vaccination program to find bin Laden, the Raymond Davis incident, the attack on the US Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul by the Haqqani Network, which the US alleged Pakistan’s intelligence agency had carried out, and drone strikes by the CIA have each forced diplomats and military officials to go into overdrive to calm Pakistani officials, who were either outraged or forced to respond to outrage from Pakistanis.
This is all circumstantial evidence—and in many respects speculation—but it is included to show keeping the identity of this country where “100%” calls are collected secret should not automatically be accepted.
Let’s continue with the possibility that Pakistan is the country. Whether Pakistanis have had the content of all their communications collected by the United States and possibly even provided to Pakistani security for analysis is a profound issue of concern.
Terrorism and nuclear proliferation are two threats that permit NSA to use bulk surveillance. If it were to be made public that massive surveillance of the content of Pakistanis’ phone calls was taking place, there would be loud protests from citizens of Pakistan. The State Department and US military might have another crisis on their hands.
All of which is offered to help support this view: if US officials are primarily worried the government of that country and its citizens would be outraged to find out they were having their phone calls subjected to dragnet surveillance in possible violation of international law, then it probably is not the role of a media organization to protect the government from losing the ability to employ this program it should not be deploying against an entire population in the first place.