By Trevor Timm
Electronic Frontier Foundation
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed expansive new guidelines for terrorism analysts, allowing the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) to mirror entire federal databases containing personal information and hold onto the information for an extended period of time–even if the person is not suspected of any involvement in terrorism. (Read the guidelines here).
Despite the “terrorism” justification, the new rules affect every single American. The agency now has free rein to, as the New York Times’ Charlie Savage put it, “retrieve, store and search information about Americans gathered by government agencies for purposes other than national security threats ” and expands the amount of time the government can keep private information on innocent individuals by a factor of ten.
From the New York Times:
The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat. (emphasis ours)
Journalist Marcy Wheeler summed the new guidelines up nicely saying, “So…the data the government keeps to track our travel, our taxes, our benefits, our identity? It just got transformed from bureaucratic data into national security intelligence.”
Editor’s Note: See also these related stories: “Everybody’s a Target in the American Surveillance State,” by attorney and author John W. Whitehead, and “The myth of freedom in the land of the free,” by John Stoehr, editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.
The administration claims that the changes in the rules for the NCTC — as well as for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which oversees the nation’s intelligence agencies — are in response to the government’s failure to connect the dots in the so-called “underwear bomber” case at the end of 2009, yet there was no explanation of how holding onto innocent Americans’ private data for five years would have stopped the bombing attempt.
Disturbingly, “oversight” for these expansive new guidelines is being directed by the DNI’s “Civil Liberties Protection Officer” Joel Alexander, who is so concerned about Americans’ privacy and civil liberties that he, as Marcy Wheeler notes, found no civil liberties concerns with the National Security Agency’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program when he reviewed it during President George W. Bush’s administration.
As other civil liberties organizations have noted, the new guidelines are reminiscent of the Orwellian-sounding “Total Information Awareness” program George Bush tried but failed to get through Congress in 2003 — again in the name of defending the nation from terrorists. The program, as the New York Times explained, sparked an “outcry” and partially shut down Congress because it “proposed fusing vast archives of electronic records — like travel records, credit card transactions, phone calls and more — and searching for patterns of a hidden terrorist cell.”
The New York Times reported, the new NCTC guidelines “are silent about the use of commercial data — like credit card and travel records — that may have been acquired by other agencies,” but information first obtained by private corporations has ended up in federal databases before. In one example, Wired Magazine found FBI databases contained “200 million records transferred from private data brokers like ChoicePoint, 55,000 entries on customers of Wyndham hotels, and numerous other travel and commercial records.” The FBI would be one of the agencies sharing intelligence with the NCTC.
Despite Congress’ utter rejection of the “Total Information Awareness” program (TIA) in 2003, this is the second time this month the administration has been accused of instituting the program piecemeal. In his detailed report on the NSA’s new “data center” in Utah, Wired Magazine’s James Bamford remarked that the new data storage complex is “the realization” of the TIA program, as it’s expected to store and catalog “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches.”
Unfortunately, the new NCTC guidelines are yet another example of the government using the word “terrorism” to infringe on the rights of innocent Americans. Aside from the NSA’s aforementioned warrantless wiretapping program, we have seen the Patriot Act overwhelmingly used in criminal investigations not involving terrorism, despite its original stated purpose. As PBS Frontline’s Azmat Khan noted in response to the new guidelines, investigative journalist Dana Priest has previously reported how “many states have yet to use their vast and growing anti-terror apparatus to capture any terrorists; instead the government has built a massive database that collects, stores and analyzes information on thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.”
This problem has been well documented for years, yet Congress and both the Bush and Obama administrations have continued to use terrorism as a justification for expansive laws, and Americans’ constitutional rights have become collateral damage.