The unspooling revelations of what exactly the NSA has been up to are proof that sometimes, the paranoid lunatics are absolutely correct. Today we learn that the spy agency has been recording 100%—all!—of the phone calls made in an entire country.
Based on leaks by Edward Snowden, Barton Gellman reports on the existence of the NSA's "MYSTIC" program, which comes with the Gandalfesque logo that you see above. Even in the context of everything we have learned about the NSA's globe-spanning suction of information, MYSTIC stands out as particularly breathtaking: the program records every single phone conversation in an entire nation and stores the recordings for 30 days. Analysts at the NSA can then listen to any of them at their leisure. The program's recordings include calls made by Americans to the nation in question.
The Washington Post did not disclose which country MYSTIC currently targets, at the request of government officials. (Though that would seem to be information that could legitimately be published, given the number of wholly innocent people being spied upon under this program.) But it seems that recording all the phone calls of one nation is just the beginning:
Some of the documents provided by Snowden suggest that high-volume eavesdropping may soon be extended to other countries, if it has not been already. The RETRO tool was built three years ago as a "unique one-off capability," but last year's secret intelligence budget named five more countries for which the MYSTIC program provides "comprehensive metadata access and content," with a sixth expected to be in place by last October.
The budget did not say whether the NSA now records calls in quantity in those countries or expects to do so. A separate document placed a high priority on planning "for MYSTIC accesses against projected new mission requirements," including "voice."
This is not "targeted" surveillance. This is wholesale surveillance of an entire populations with no limits whatsoever. And with plans in place to spread this sort of surveillance around the world. This is the sort of thing that, pre-Snowden, would have been dismissed as a farcical notion of an all-knowing government, a ridiculous fear far beyond any likely reality.
It is outrageous that the international phone calls of innocent American citizens are being recorded by our own government with no probable cause. More broadly, it is outrageous that a U.S. spy agency would record every single phone call made by innocent citizens of a foreign nation, like the world's most voracious voyeur. The NSA is listening to all the phone sex in the Middle East. This is what the wholesale erasure of privacy looks like. It's natural to feel fatigued after so many NSA stories. It's easy to allow these revelations to fade into background noise. But this shit is important. The U.S. government will happily take all of the powers that we don't fight it for.