Is NSA’s Foreign Surveillance Still Over the Top?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The National Security Agency and other American intelligence agencies have been subject to serious criticism regarding their surveillance practices and information acquisition in foreign countries as well as the U.S. Now, according to the Washington Post, more information has come to light on the NSA’s capabilities when it comes to telephone monitoring.

The program, entitled MYSTIC, utilizes the RETRO tool, which gives those monitoring phone calls for salient information a unique power — retroactive recording. Documents released by former contractor to the NSA, Edward Snowden, as well as people with “direct knowledge of the effort” alerted the Washington Post to the nature of the program, with a senior manager on it describing it as being like a time machine. If an individual becomes a person of interest after the fact, it is possible to go back and examine calls later in the game. The system began in 2011 with a rolling storage of 30 days so that the older calls would be replaced by newer calls. According to the Washington Post, “100 percent” of foreign country’s telephone calls could be recorded, but the system is only in place in one at the present time.

In a statement, as per the Washington Post, National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden refused to comment on the “specific alleged intelligence activities,” but did say that in general “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 those threats.”

This latest news comes at a time when Freedom of Information Act requests have been seeing heavy blockage by intelligence, something that is often used as a barometer for transparency. “I’m concerned the growing trend toward relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public’s right to know,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to the Associated Press. “It becomes too much of a temptation. If you screw up in government, just mark it ‘top secret,’” she said.

Vanee Vines, the NSA spokesperson told the Washington Post in an emailed statement that, “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.”

The issue comes up not long after President Obama’s presidential policy directive, in which he made it clear that the NSA and other intelligence interests were not to use bulk acquisition unless it pertained to intelligence on one of six specified threats, including counterterrorism, relationships with other nations, commerical or economic interests, and others. “The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security,” said Obama in his remarks on the review of signal intelligence in January. At the time, he emphasized the changes he’d enacted to cut back on surveillance since 9/11, but continues to see criticism on privacy concerns.

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