U.S. officials have asked The Washington Post to withhold details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned-
Other U.S. agencies also have access to the MYSTIC database, making it uniquely valuable when a new suspect or phone number is discovered. The program was first developed as a one-off capability, but the Post‘s documents show officials considering deploying it in as many as six other countries.
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.
Based on RETRO’s internal reviews, the NSA has strong motive to deploy it elsewhere. In the documents and interviews, U.S. officials said RETRO is uniquely valuable when an analyst first uncovers a new name or telephone number of interest.
With up to 30 days of recorded conversations in hand, the NSA can pull an instant history of the subject’s movements, associates and plans. Some other U.S. intelligence agencies also have access to RETRO.
President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, An independent panel appointed by the administration while under-pressure by American citizens to review the government’s surveillance activities was tasked with reviewing US surveillance policies.
Recommending in a wide-ranging report issued Wednesday that decisions to spy on foreign leaders be subjected to greater scrutiny, including weighing the diplomatic and economic fallout if operations are revealed. Allied foreign leaders or those with whom the United States shares a cooperative relationship should be accorded “a high degree of respect and deference,”
The panel also advised that American’s intercepted communications in which current surveillance practices have ‘incidentally’ collected en masse like U.S. calls and e-mails — including American citizens private calls obtained overseas — should nearly always “be purged upon detection.”
Obama did not accept that recommendation.
Peter Swire, a member of the president’s review group, the fact that Americans and foreigners use the same devices, software and networks calls for greater care to safeguard Americans’ privacy.
“It’s important to have institutional protections so that advanced capabilities used overseas don’t get turned against our democracy at home,” he said.
The panel itself an ‘independent’ group of five has four members who have worked for previous democratic administrations including former CIA and two former Bush administration national security lawyers- who recommended that the government keep collecting the phone records.
The panel said that the NSA’s storage of phone data “creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty” and that as a general rule, “the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information” about Americans to be mined for foreign intelligence purposes.
It looks like the debate is meant to be nothing more than political theater and the NSA’s use of such programs like MYSTIC and RETRO for collecting meta-data and voice-content will expand. Regardless of public outcry, neither party nor the panel seems to have a platform to stand on when debate is nullified in this way.