The NSA Built a ‘Time Machine’–but Washington Post Won’t Say Where

WashPost-NSA-mysticThe Washington Post (3/18/14) is reporting, based on the files of whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the NSA is able to store every phone call made in an entire nation and replay them for up to 30 days.  Not only can the agency do this, but there is a country where it’s actually doing this now–the Post knows where, but they won’t say. 

As Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani report, “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.”

They add: 

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.

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.

Interesting stuff, but the Post is withholding one crucial piece of the puzzle: 

At the request of US officials, the Washington Post is withholding details that could be used to identify the country where the system is being employed or other countries where its use was envisioned.

Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened; the Post‘s Dana Priest uncovered shocking details about the US government’s overseas prisons–“black sites”–but would not reveal the countries that were hosting the CIA’s secret jails (FAIR Action Alert, 11/4/05). 

Last year, the Post revealed that the CIA had a drone base in Saudi Arabia–something the paper had apparently known for a while, but decided not to report at the behest of the US government (FAIR Blog, 2/6/13). The Post revealed the location of the base only after learning that another media outlet was going to make it known, “effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations.” 

It’s impossible to know why this information is being withheld, but it’s safe to assume that the public reaction–here and elsewhere–could be very different depending on the country is being targeted.

And it shouldn’t be assumed that the government has an especially strong rationale for pressuring the Post; as New York Times Washington bureau chief Carolyn Ryan (Huffington Post, 2/11/14) noted, “I worry that their requests to withhold information have become almost blanket policy.”

It’s easy to imagine why the NSA, which is in the business of  secrecy, would want to keep the target of its surveillance secret. It’s less clear why the Washington Post, which is supposed to be in the business of informing the public, would decide to go along.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.