Privacy SOS

In the shadows of the NSA scandals: the National Counter Terrorism Center

Anybody remember the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC)? The one that sucks up vast quantities of private information about every single person in the United States and also helps the president identify possible targets for his ever-expanding ‘kill list’? 

Marcy Wheeler over at Emptywheel makes a chilling observation in light of the NSA's admission that it sucks up the content of our communications without warrants: the NCTC likely has access to all of our emails, text messages, phone calls and information about our communications, in addition to any and all records held about us by any federal agency.

We've known for some time that the NCTC holds information about us that could include “law enforcement investigations…employment history, travel and student records,” as well as tax history, federal mortgage information, and possibly even detailed health records through the Medicare or Medicaid programs. That's bad enough, but combined with the data we now know NSA sucks up about us, it is downright dystopian.

Wheeler points out that the NCTC guidelines require the Center to be provided with “access to everything.” 

[The National Security Act] provides that “[u]nless otherwise directed by the President, the Director of National Intelligence shall have access to all national intelligence and intelligence related to the national security which is collected by any federal department, agency, or other entity, except as otherwise provided by law, or as appropriate, under guidelines agreed upon by the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence.”

Again: all of that information is likely readily accessed or even stored by the National Counter Terrorism Center, the same government office that runs data mining programs via its ‘disposition matrix’ — an Orwellian term for deciding who will be (often extrajudicially) targeted by the president’s secretive death squads, or by the CIA. 

Most of us likely won't be targeted by the CIA or by "industrial-scale…killing machine" JSOC for extrajudicial assassination. But many of us will be arrested this year for drug crimes.

As my colleague Chris Calabrese pointed out in March 2012, the vast troves of information NCTC holds about us — which we now know may include the content of all of our communications and records of everywhere we have traveled with our cell phones over a period of years — can be dished out not simply to the FBI for serious criminal investigations, but also to our state and local police departments, even for investigations related to drugs.


Perhaps most disturbing, once information is gathered (not necessarily connected to terrorism), in many cases it can be shared with “a federal, state, local, tribal, or foreign or international entity, or to an individual or entity not part of a government” – literally anyone. That sharing can happen in relation to national security and safety, drug investigations, if it’s evidence of a crime or to evaluate sources or contacts. This boundless sharing is broad enough to encompass disclosures to an employer or landlord about someone who NCTC may think is potentially a criminal, or at the request of local law enforcement for vetting an informant.

To recap: the NCTC makes suggestions to the president about who to target for death, kidnapping or detention; collects or has access to pretty much every single bit of information about us; and even gives that data to law enforcement to use it to lock us up on drug charges. All of this is done behind an iron wall of secrecy, with hardly any oversight whatsoever.

Tip of the iceberg, indeed.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.