A new set of guidelines will expand the government's ability to retain data about American citizens, empowering officials to store information on U.S. residents for up to five years.
Previously, the National Counterterrorism Center had to destroy information about Americans after a few months when there was no connection to terrorism. Under the new rules, approved on Thursday by Attorney General Eric Holder, officials can keep information for up to five years, even when there is no evident link to national security.
According to its official website, the National Counterterrorism Center was created by then-President George W. Bush via Presidential Executive Order 13354 in August 2004, and codified by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA). The NCTC implements a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.
Created soon after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2011, the NCTC is a clearinghouse for intelligence officials to assemble and analyze data about potential terrorist activity. But its effectiveness came into question after officials failed to catch Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, whose 2009 attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner was narrowly averted.
Lawmakers cited Abdulmutallab as they pushed to bolster intelligence-gathering rules. Robert S. Litt, the general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the Washington Post that the previous regulations had impeded the intelligence community's ability to spot emerging threats.
On Day One, you may look at something and think that it has nothing to do with terrorism, Litt said. Then, six months later, all of a sudden, it becomes relevant.
Litt said that the new rules struck a balance between giving the government needed flexibility and safeguarding individual privacy. But civil liberties advocates warned of the potential for abuse.
It is a vast expansion of the government's surveillance authority, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Associated Press. The fact that this data can be retained for five years on U.S. citizens for whom there's no evidence of criminal conduct is very disturbing, Rotenberg added.
Critics also drew parallels to the proposed Total Information Awareness system, another outgrowth of the post-Sept. 11 war on terror. The project would have compiled a vast database of data on U.S. citizens, including information about credit card purchases, medical history and email correspondences. Congress partially defunded the program.
We're all in the dark, and for all we know it could be a rerun of Total Information Awareness, which would have allowed the government to make a computerized database of everything on everybody, Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies, told the New York Times.