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 report.
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 terrorist watchlist.
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.