WikiLeaks Claims NSA Is Recording ‘Nearly All’ of Afghanistan’s Phone Calls

Journalists had previously refused to identify “˜Country X’ due to concerns for national security.

National Journal
Dustin Volz
May 23, 2014, 8:37 a.m.

The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency has been re­cord­ing and archiv­ing “nearly all” do­mest­ic and in­ter­na­tion­al phone calls in Afgh­anistan as of last year, ac­cord­ing to the an­ti­se­crecy web­site WikiLeaks.

Fol­low­ing through on a prom­ise made earli­er in the week, WikiLeaks re­vealed Fri­day the iden­tity of what it says is “Coun­try X,” a pre­vi­ously un­named coun­try that journ­al­ism re­ports have said was sub­ject to an NSA sur­veil­lance pro­gram that al­lows agents to listen in to the en­tirety of its tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions.

The coun­try’s iden­tity had been cen­sored by mul­tiple journ­al­ism out­lets be­cause of re­quests from U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, who claimed its dis­clos­ure could sig­ni­fic­antly jeop­ard­ize na­tion­al se­cur­ity and lead to deaths.

But WikiLeaks, which is known for an ag­gress­ive dis­clos­ure policy that rarely fa­vors re­dac­tion, dis­missed such con­cerns.

“Both The Wash­ing­ton Post and The In­ter­cept stated that they had cen­sored the name of the vic­tim coun­try at the re­quest of the U.S. gov­ern­ment,” WikiLeaks said in a state­ment. “By deny­ing an en­tire pop­u­la­tion the know­ledge of its own vic­tim­iz­a­tion, this act of cen­sor­ship denies each in­di­vidu­al in that coun­try the op­por­tun­ity to seek an ef­fect­ive rem­edy, wheth­er in in­ter­na­tion­al courts, or else­where.”

If true, the dis­clos­ure that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is able to listen to al­most any phone con­ver­sa­tion in Afgh­anistan could have sub­stan­tial rami­fic­a­tions for in­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions.

The pro­gram in ques­tion is code­named MYS­TIC and was formed in 2009 to al­low NSA ana­lysts to re­wind and play back phone con­ver­sa­tions tak­ing place with­in the pre­vi­ous 30 days. The pro­gram has been de­scribed by one of­fi­cial as a “time ma­chine” that opens a “door in­to the past,” al­low­ing a full re­play of the voices on any giv­en call, without the need for pri­or iden­ti­fic­a­tion of those on the line.

Earli­er in the week, WikiLeaks began a heated de­bate on Twit­ter with journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald, a con­fid­ant of NSA whistle-blower Ed­ward Snowden. Gre­en­wald is be­lieved to be one of only two people to pos­sess all of the Snowden files. WikiLeaks took is­sue with a new re­port from The In­ter­cept, Gre­en­wald’s new journ­al­ism en­deavor, that re­vealed that the U.S. was cov­ertly re­cord­ing the con­ver­sa­tions of “vir­tu­ally every cell­phone con­ver­sa­tion” in the Ba­hamas, in ad­di­tion to its con­tent-va­cu­um­ing ef­forts in Coun­try X.

Ig­nor­ing pleas from Gre­en­wald that he and his fel­low journ­al­ists were “very con­vinced” that nam­ing the coun­try would lead to deaths, WikiLeaks ab­ruptly threatened to dis­close its iden­tity.

It re­mains un­clear how the web­site would pos­sess such top-secret in­form­a­tion. On Fri­day, it re­fused to give fur­ther de­tail.

“Al­though, for reas­ons of source pro­tec­tion we can­not dis­close how, WikiLeaks has con­firmed that the iden­tity of vic­tim state is Afgh­anistan,” WikiLeaks wrote. “This can also be in­de­pend­ently veri­fied through forensic scru­tiny of im­per­fectly ap­plied cen­sor­ship on re­lated doc­u­ments re­leased to date and cor­rel­a­tions with oth­er NSA pro­grams.”

The NSA did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. But in a state­ment provided to Na­tion­al Journ­al in March, the agency said it “does not con­duct sig­nals in­tel­li­gence col­lec­tion in any coun­try, or any­where in the world, un­less it is ne­ces­sary to ad­vance U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity and for­eign policy in­terests.”

Gre­en­wald and oth­er journ­al­ists with know­ledge of the NSA’s clas­si­fied pro­grams have not yet com­men­ted on the vera­city of WikiLeaks’s nam­ing of Afgh­anistan.

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