The NSA’s MYSTIC program creates an archive of telephone calls, including metadata and a full record call’s contents.

According to Edward Snowden, the NSA can access the content of an unnamed foreign country’s calls “as long as a month” after the calls occurred. After the program began, between 2009 and 2011, it recorded “every single conversation nationwide” for 30 day intervals (Gellman 2014). Although the program provides the ability for the NSA to listen to virtually any phone conversation, analysts only view around one percent of calls. According to The Washington Post, “most of the conversations collected by RETRO [the tool behind Mystic’s program] would be irrelevant to U.S. national security interests” (ibid).

An article on the MYSTIC program
An article on the MYSTIC program. [2]
Internal memo describing SOMALGET, a program within MYSTIC
An internal memo describing SOMALGET, a program within MYSTIC. [3]

While it is true that the program was first created to operate in foreign nations, the tool has the ability to access any phone provider in any country. With Section 215, if the NSA incidentally collects the calls of a U.S. citizen, the FBI would also have access to that information for domestic investigations.

President Obama talking about the NSA's MYSITC program. [4]

MYSTIC is sanctioned by E.O. 12333; it is not subject to FISA or a FISC mandate – authority is granted by the executive branch to conduct foreign surveillance. President Obama tasked an independent group to review his administration’s surveillance programs, but when they suggested that U.S. data be “purged upon detection,” President Obama “did not accept that recommendation” (ibid). The then-President's reluctance to puge U.S. data further explains the purpose of Section 215 of the Patriot Act; in the case that an F.B.I. investigation involves a U.S. citizen, they can obtain a copy of the person’s recorded calls from the NSA’s database.

# Sources

  1. Gellman, Barton, and Ashkan Soltani. “NSA Surveillance Program Reaches 'into the Past' to Retrieve, Replay Phone Calls.” The Washington Post, March 18, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-surveillance-program-reaches-into-the-past-to-retrieve-replay-phone-calls/2014/03/18/226d2646-ade9-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html (opens new window).
  2. MYSTIC. The Intercept, May 19, 2014. https://theintercept.com/document/2014/05/19/mystic/ (opens new window).
  3. SOMALGET. The Intercept, May 19, 2014. https://theintercept.com/document/2014/05/19/somalget-memo/ (opens new window).
  4. President Obama Defends N.S.A. Surveillance Programs. The New York Times, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8F99BT8QAA (opens new window).