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Plan would ease limits on holding intelligence

Privacy advocates likely to challenge

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is close to approving guidelines that would allow the intelligence community to lengthen the period of time it retains information about US residents, even if they have no known connection to terrorism.

Senior US officials familiar with the guidelines said the changes would allow the National Counterterrorism Center, the intelligence community’s clearinghouse for counterterrorism data, to keep such information for up to five years.

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Currently, the center must promptly destroy any information about US citizens or residents unless a connection to terrorism is evident.

The new guidelines, which may be approved in coming days, have been in the works for more than a year, said officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

The guidelines are likely to prompt concern from privacy advocates. Senior Justice Department officials said Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who must approve the guidelines, will ensure that privacy protections are adequate.

A major point of negotiation has been how long the National Counterterrorism Center should be able to keep a vast assemblage of data on people who may be regarded as “US persons’’ - US citizens and legal permanent residents. The data, drawn from federal agencies, can range from visa and travel records to information from the FBI.

Current guidelines are very limiting, one official said. “On Day 1, you may look at something and think that it has nothing to do with terrorism. Then six months later all of a sudden it becomes relevant.’’

A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the government has taken steps to break down barriers in information-sharing between law enforcement and the intelligence community, but policy hurdles remain.

The National Counterterrorism Center, created by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, collects information from numerous agencies and maintains access to about 30 different data sets across the government. But privacy safeguards differ from agency to agency, hindering effective analysis, senior intelligence officials said.

Officials said the new guidelines are aimed at making sure relevant terrorism information does not just vanish.

The shootings at Fort Hood in Texas and the attempted downing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 gave new impetus to efforts to aggregate and analyze terrorism-related data more effectively.

In the case of Fort Hood, Major Nidal Hasan had contact with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki but that information was not shared across the government. The name of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate a bomb on a transatlantic flight, had been placed in a master list housed at the National Counterterrorism Center but not on a terrorist watch list that would have prevented him from boarding the plane.

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