NSA surveillance program reaches ‘into the past’ to retrieve, replay phone calls

The National Security Agency has built a surveillance system capable of recording “100 percent” of a foreign country’s telephone calls, enabling the agency to rewind and review conversations as long as a month after they take place, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort and documents supplied by former contractor Edward Snowden.

A senior manager for the program compares it to a time machine — one that can replay the voices from any call without requiring that a person be identified in advance for surveillance.
Explore the documents

This cover slide comes from a weekly briefing deck by the NSA's Special Source Operations team, whichis responsible for deploying and maintaining bulk collection methods.

This is an excerpt from a weekly briefing memo from the NSA's Special Source Operations team that describes collection efforts and defines many agency terms.

In this excerpt from the FY13 Congressional Budget Justification, the addition of a country to MYSTIC efforts is mentioned.
Obama and NSA reforms
On Jan. 17, President Obama called for significant changes to the way NSA collects and uses telephone records of U.S. citizens. Read a transcript of his remarks.


Here is the report from the five-member Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which contains 40-plus recommendations on the NSA. Read it.

The voice interception program, called MYSTIC, began in 2009. Its RETRO tool, short for “retrospective retrieval,” and related projects reached full capacity against the first target nation in 2011. Planning documents two years later anticipated similar operations elsewhere.

In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.

The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.

The Bill of Rights affords the people certain protections from their government.

When do we put those protections aside in the name of security?

Earlier, we found out the NSA Director lied through his teeth to Congress over the issue of surveillance generally and phone monitoring in particular.  A talking head I was just watching on TV apparently has zero problem with everyone on the planet being under surveillance, Constitution notwithstanding.

That, of course, begs the issues:  Is the Constitution a death warrant?  Are we to trust government to determine what is "best" for us?  Are we, for example, really that much different now than any other totalitarian government of the past (Or even the present) that engages in this sort of thing with their people?

Are we to expect that with the government, for lack of a better word, "tapping" every communication made, there is no possibility of abuse or intimidation?

My thoughts are that government surveillance, while obviously with different capabilities as technology changes, should still be forced to meet the requirements of probable cause... like "probable cause" used to be required to tap a phone of open a letter.

When I was a postal officer in Germany (Mid 80's) there was an investigation in one of the Infantry battalions in Mainz in the 8th Infantry Division.  One of the troops was selling acid (LSD for the aficionados) and CID had determined it arrived in a greeting card in the form of small flag decals.

They requested that all mail going to this company be screened.  I sorted the entire battalion's mail every day, in my office, to insure the chain of custody and not allow information to get out that a specific unit or person was under a "screen."

After a couple of weeks... sure enough, a greeting card type envelope for this soldier came in.  I called the CID agent, and together we drove 40 miles to the division headquarters to get a warrant signed by the Division JAG.  We briefed him in on the case; he asked a lot of questions... And issued the warrant.

We headed over to the Division Provost Marshall's office, opened the letter and found exactly what we were looking for.

I handed over the letter, certified the chain of custody, headed back to Mainz, contacted the soldier's First Sergeant and Company Commander, asked to see the soldier in their presence where I read a prepared notification that his mail has been confiscated, although I was not required to tell him why (I had told the First Shirt and the Captain why) and then to give him the number of the CID Agent if he had any questions.

And all of that was for a single letter.

Now, millions of communications of every imaginable variety seem to be captured by the NSA every day, without any of the protections this (ultimately convicted) drug dealer was afforded.

We already know that IRS information has been used for political purposes: the very height of federal government corruption.  Why should we conclude that the reasons for this surveillance are all altruistic and it's sweetness and light and all about our safety?

Given the history of government abuse that stretches back regardless of the Administration, we have no proof that this is, in fact, being done for the purposes those in power claim.

And what about the Constitution?  Where does that fit in?  When do we demand it be applied on this, or any other issue?  When do we turn away from it?  When do we allow the government to violate it?  When do we hold government accountable?  What does that look like?

As we grow progressively weaker as a nation externally,  does not the obvious disregard for the Constitution serve to weaken us internally?

How much is enough?