Americans' data to be held longer under counterterrorism rules

Armed police guard the outside of the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, October 6, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Counterterrorism officials will keep certain information about American citizens and legal residents for up to five years, rather than the previous six months, in a bid to do a better job tracking down terrorism suspects, according to new guidelines made public on Thursday.

The guidelines, approved by Attorney General Eric Holder, represent the latest step taken by the U.S. government to try to improve its ability to guard against terrorism amid an ongoing debate over whether efforts to bolster American security are coming at a cost of individual rights and privacy.

The guidelines state that certain data “may be retained and continually assessed for a period of up to five years” by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) to determine whether the data relates to a terrorism threat.

The Washington Post posted a copy of the guidelineshere

Previously, the National Counterterrorism Center was required to destroy information about U.S. citizens or residents within 180 days unless a connection to terrorism was found.

The guidelines showed that Matthew Olsen, the head of the NCTC, and James Clapper, director of U.S. National Intelligence, signed off on the new steps on Wednesday and Holder did so on Thursday.

“These guidelines permit NCTC to access and acquire United States person information for the purpose of determining whether the information is reasonably believed to constitute terrorism information and thus may be permanently retained, used, and disseminated,” the guidelines state.

Robert Litt, the general counsel in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the counterterrorism agency, said the old guidelines were “very limiting.”

“On Day One, 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,” Litt told the Washington Post.

Reporting By JoAnne Allen; Editing by Will Dunham