(Adds civil liberties group reaction, paragraphs 13-14)
WASHINGTON, March 18 The U.S. National Security
Agency has created a surveillance system that is recording all
the phone calls in an undisclosed foreign country, allowing it
to play back any conversation up to 30 days later, the
Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
The newspaper cited unnamed sources with direct knowledge of
the system as well as documents supplied by former NSA
contractor Edward Snowden, who since last year has leaked
extensive data revealing sweeping American spying activities.
The newspaper said that at the request of U.S. officials, it
was withholding details that could be used to identify the
nation where the system is being used or others where it might
be used in the future. The Post cited documents that envisioned
similar U.S. spying operations in other nations.
The voice interception program is known as MYSTIC and
started in 2009, with its "retrospective retrieval" capability,
called RETRO, reaching full strength in 2011 against the first
target nation, the Post reported.
A classified summary of the system said the collection
effort was recording "every single" conversation nationwide in
the first target country, storing billions of conversations in a
30-day rolling buffer that clears out the oldest calls as new
ones are made, the Post reported.
A senior manager for the program likened it to a time
machine that can replay voices from any phone call without the
need to identify a person for spying in advance, the newspaper
The Post said that no other disclosed NSA program captures a
nation's telephone network in its entirety.
Current and former U.S. officials quoted anonymously by the
Post said large numbers of conversations involving Americans
would be gathered using the system.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, at his regular news
briefing on Tuesday, sidestepped a question about the Post
article, saying that "we don't, as a general rule, comment on
every specific allegation or report."
"We make clear what activity the NSA and ... our
intelligence community engages in, and the fact that they are
bound by our laws and the oversight of three branches of
government," Carney told reporters.
Carney also noted that President Barack Obama announced a
series of steps in January to "significantly reform our
Obama on Jan. 17 began reining in the vast collection of
Americans' phone data and banned U.S. eavesdropping on the
leaders of close allies in a series of limited reforms triggered
by the revelations from numerous documents leaked by Snowden.
Civil liberties activists condemned the MYSTIC program.
"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. The NSA has always wanted to
record everything, and now it has the capacity to do so," Jameel
Jaffer, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union,
said in a statement.
In a statement published by the Post, White House National
Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden refused to comment
on "specific alleged intelligence activities."
But Hayden said "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 these threats," the Post reported.
NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines told the Post 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."
Snowden last year fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia,
where he has asylum. The United States wants him returned to
face criminal prosecution.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Richard Chang and