The Obama Administration has now given the little known National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) sweeping new powers to collect and store data on ordinary Americas, even those who have not committed a crime or are not suspected of committed a crime. This revelation comes from explosive new reporting by the Wall Street Journal that details the debate that took place between administration officials and what power the new policy will give the NCTC:
Under the new rules issued in March, the National Counterterrorism Center, known as NCTC, can obtain almost any database the government collects that it says is “reasonably believed” to contain “terrorism information.” The list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.
Previous government proposals to scrutinize massive amounts of data about innocent people have caused an uproar. In 2002, the Pentagon’s research arm proposed a program called Total Information Awareness that sought to analyze both public and private databases for terror clues. It would have been far broader than the NCTC’s current program, examining many nongovernmental pools of data as well.
“If terrorist organizations are going to plan and execute attacks against the United States, their people must engage in transactions and they will leave signatures,” the program’s promoter, Admiral John Poindexter, said at the time. “We must be able to pick this signal out of the noise.”
Adm. Poindexter’s plans drew fire from across the political spectrum over the privacy implications of sorting through every single document available about U.S. citizens. Conservative columnist William Safire called the plan a “supersnoop’s dream.” Liberal columnist Molly Ivins suggested it could be akin to fascism. Congress eventually defunded the program.
The National Counterterrorism Center’s ideas faced no similar public resistance. For one thing, the debate happened behind closed doors. In addition, unlike the Pentagon, the NCTC was created in 2004 specifically to use data to connect the dots in the fight against terrorism.
Even after eight years in existence, the agency isn’t well known. “We’re still a bit of a startup and still having to prove ourselves,” said director Matthew Olsen in a rare public appearance this summer at the Aspen Institute, a leadership think tank.
The agency’s offices are tucked away in an unmarked building set back from the road in the woodsy suburban neighborhood of McLean, Va. Many employees are on loan from other agencies, and they don’t conduct surveillance or gather clues directly. Instead, they analyze data provided by others.
The agency’s best-known product is a database called TIDE, which stands for the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment. TIDE contains more than 500,000 identities suspected of terror links. Some names are known or suspected terrorists; others are terrorists’ friends and families; still more are people with some loose affiliation to a terrorist.
TIDE files are important because they are used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to compile terrorist “watchlists.” These are lists that can block a person from boarding an airplane or obtaining a visa.