The Obama administration has extended the time the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) can collect and hold on to records on U.S. citizens and residents from 180 days to five years, even where those people have no suspected ties to terrorism. The new NCTC guidelines, which were approved by Attorney General Eric Holder, will give the intelligence community much broader access to information about Americans retained in various government databases.
The decades-old rules limiting the collection and retention of U.S. citizen and resident information by the intelligence community and the military existed for a very good reason: to ensure that the powerful tools designed to protect us from foreign enemies are not turned against Americans. Authorizing the “temporary” retention of nonterrorism-related citizen and resident information for five years essentially removes the restraint against wholesale collection of our personal information by the government, and puts all Americans at risk of unjustified scrutiny. Such unfettered collection risks reviving the Bush administration’s Total Information Awareness program, which Congress killed in 2003.
The previous obligation to “promptly review” data and purge nonterrorism-related U.S. citizen and resident information served to protect Americans’ privacy and security by forcing the intelligence community to properly focus its collection efforts, and by compelling them to make timely reviews of information gathered. After too many intelligence failures, we’ve found the important pieces of information were lost in the vast streams of data collected. Making the haystack bigger will only make it harder to find the needle, endangering both privacy and security.
American citizens and residents should not be considered potential terrorists until the NCTC decides otherwise. Having innocent people’s information in intelligence databases for five years without any suspicion of wrongdoing creates an unacceptable risk to Americans’ privacy through error and abuse.