In a secret government agreement granted without approval or debate from
lawmakers, the U.S. attorney general recently gave the National
Counterterrorism Center sweeping new powers to store dossiers on U.S.
citizens, even if they are not suspected of a crime, according to a news
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder granted the center
the ability to copy entire government databases holding information on
flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting
foreign-exchange students and other data, and to store it for up to five
years, even without suspicion that someone in the database has
committed a crime, according to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story.
Whereas previously the law prohibited the center from storing data
compilations on U.S. citizens unless they were suspected of terrorist
activity or were relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation, the new
powers give the center the ability to not only collect and store vast
databases of information but also to trawl through and analyze it for
suspicious patterns of behavior in order to uncover activity that could
launch an investigation.
The changes granted by Holder would also allow databases containing
information about U.S. citizens to be shared with foreign governments
for their own analysis.
A former senior White House official told the Journal that the new changes were “breathtaking in scope.”
But counterterrorism officials tried to downplay the move by telling the Journal that the changes come with strict guidelines about how the data can be used.
“The guidelines provide rigorous oversight to protect the information
that we have, for authorized and narrow purposes,” Alexander Joel,
Civil Liberties Protection Officer for the Office of the Director of
National Intelligence, told the paper.
The NCTC currently maintains the Terrorist Identities Datamart
Environment database, or TIDE, which holds data on more than 500,000
identities suspected of terror activity or terrorism links, including
friends and families of suspects, and is the basis for the FBI’s
Under the new rules issued in March, the NCTC can now obtain almost
any other government database that it claims is “reasonably believed” to
contain “terrorism information.” This could conceivably include
collections of financial forms submitted by people seeking federally
backed mortgages or even the health records of anyone who sought mental
or physical treatment at government-run hospitals, such as Veterans
Administration facilities, the paper notes.
The Obama administration’s new rules come after previous surveillance
proposals were struck down during the Bush administration, following
In 2002, the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness program proposed
to scrutinize both government and private databases, but public outrage
killed the program in essence, though not in spirit. Although Congress
de-funded the program in 2003, the NSA continued to collect and sift
through immense amounts of data about who Americans spoke with, where
they traveled and how they spent their money.
The Federal Privacy Act prohibits government agencies from sharing
data for any purpose other than the reason for which the data was
initially collected, in order to prevent the creation of dossiers, but
agencies can do an end-run around this restriction by posting a notice
in the Federal Register, providing justification for the data request.
Such notices are rarely seen or contested, however.
The changes to the rules for the NCTC were sought in large part after
authorities failed to catch Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he boarded
a plane on Christmas Day in 2009 with explosives sewn into his
underwear. Abdulmutallab wasn’t on the FBI watchlist, but the NCTC had
received tips about him, and yet failed to search other government
databases to connect dots that might have helped prevent him from
boarding the plane.
As the NCTC tried to remedy that situation for later suspects, legal obstacles emerged, the Journal
reports, since the center was only allowed to query federal databases
for a specific name or a specific passenger list. “They couldn’t look
through the databases trolling for general ‘patterns,’” the paper notes.
But the request to expand the center’s powers led to a heated debate
at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, with Mary
Ellen Callahan, then-chief privacy officer for the Department of
Homeland Security, leading the charge to defend civil liberties.
Callahan argued that the new rules represented a “sea change” and that
every interaction a citizen would have with the government in the future
would be ruled by the underlying question, is that person a terrorist?
Callahan lost her battle, however, and subsequently left her job,
though it’s not known if her struggle over the NCTC debate played a role
in her decision to leave.
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