Privacy Law

Little Known Agency Gets Expanded Powers to Scour Databases for Terrorism Patterns

Attorney General Eric Holder has signed guidelines giving expansive new powers to a little-known agency to scour vast databases for patterns indicating terrorism, according to a published report.

Holder approved the grant of new power to the National Counterterrorism Center despite objections by lawyers concerned about the privacy implications, the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) reports. The story is based on Freedom of Information requests and interviews with officials at several agencies.

Under the new rules, the National Counterterrorism Center can examine the government files of U.S. citizens without any suspicion they are engaged in criminal behavior, the story says. The NCTC can copy entire government databases, such as flight records and lists of people hosting exchange students, as long as they are reasonably believed to contain terrorism information. The agency can also keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and the databases may be given to foreign governments for their own analyses.

Among the lawyers raising concerns was Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security. Callahan argued in March meeting that the measure represented a “sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public,” the story says. Callahan is now in private practice.

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