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The U.S. intelligence community will be able to store information about Americans with no ties to terrorism for up to five years under new Obama administration guidelines.
Until now, the National Counterterrorism Center had to destroy immediately information about Americans that already was stored in other government databases when there were no clear ties to terrorism.
Giving the NCTC expanded record-retention authority had been urged by members of Congress, who said the intelligence community did not connect strands of intelligence held by multiple agencies leading up to a failed bombing attempt on a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas 2009.
"Following the failed terrorist attack in December 2009, representatives of the counterterrorism community concluded it is vital for NCTC to be provided with a variety of datasets from various agencies that contain terrorism information," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement late Thursday. "The ability to search against these datasets for up to five years on a continuing basis as these updated guidelines permit will enable NCTC to accomplish its mission more practically and effectively."
The new rules replace guidelines issued in 2008 and have privacy advocates concerned about the potential for data-mining information on innocent Americans.
"It is a vast expansion of the government's surveillance authority," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said of the five-year retention period.
The government put in strong safeguards at the NCTC for the data that would be collected on U.S. citizens for intelligence purposes, Rotenberg said. These new guidelines undercut the Federal Privacy Act, he said.
"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 said.
"Total Information Awareness appears to be reconstructing itself," he said, referring to the Defense Department's data-mining research program that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but was stopped in 2003 because of privacy concerns.
The Washington Post first reported the new rules Thursday.
The Obama administration said the new rules come with strong safeguards for privacy and civil liberties as well. Before the NCTC may obtain data held by another government agency, there is a high-level review to assure that the data are "likely to contain significant terrorism information," Alexander Joel, the civil liberties protection officer at the national intelligence directorate, said in a news release Thursday.
The NCTC was created after the Sept. 11 attacks to be the central U.S. organization to analyze and integrate intelligence regarding terrorism.