Until recently, non-terror-related data collected on American citizens by U.S. intelligence agencies had to be destroyed within six months of collection. Under new Obama Administration guidelines, such information on ordinary citizens can now be maintained for up to five years by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the intelligence community’s clearinghouse for terrorism data. The move has raised objections from civil liberties groups, and has set the stage for another clash between the principles of information privacy and the need for domestic security. Last December, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Bush Administration program that implemented a 2009 act of Congress granting immunity to telecommunication companies – AT&T, Sprint-Nextel, Verizon, and BellSouth – in return for their cooperation with an email and telephone surveillance program. However, that program was designed to gather data on those with links to foreign terror groups. The Obama policy, by contrast, will focus on domestic information-gathering on American citizens not suspected of terror ties. The Obama Administration has indicated that its new data retention plan is justified by, among other things, the shooting of U.S. military staff at Fort Hood, TX by Maj. Nidal Hasan. The government, through an unnamed official source cited by the Washington Post, has argued that privacy will still be protected because terrorism is still the target, indicating: “there’s one set of controls for terrorism purposes, a stricter set of controls for non-terrorism purposes …” At the time of the Ft. Hood shooting, however, the Justice Department refused to publicly decry Hasan’s shooting rampage as a “terrorist” act.
Additionally, the Administration has not yet clarified what kind of “non-terrorism purposes” would be served by the new policy.