How the NCTC Gets Its NSA Data

I’m working on a more substantive post on the Section 702 Semiannual Compliance Assessment released last week as part of the I Con dump.

But for the moment, I want to point to a passage that begins to answer a question I asked two months ago: how does the data from NSA’s programs get to the National Counterterrorism Center, which then crunches that data and sends it out to other parts of government.

A footnote of the Assessment notes,

The other agency involved in implementing Section 702 is the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which has a limited role, as reflected in the recently approved “Minimization Procedures Used by NCTC in connection with Information Acquired by the FBI pursuant to Section 702 of FISA, as amended.” Under these limited minimization procedures, NCTC is not authorized to receive unminimized Section 702 data. Rather, these procedures recognize that, in light of NCTC’s statutory counterterrorism role and mission, NCTC has been provided access to certain FBI systems containing minimized Section 702 information, and prescribe how NCTC is to treat that information. For example, because NCTC is not a law enforcement agency, it may not receive disseminations of Section 702 information that is evidence of a crime, but which has no foreign intelligence value; accordingly, NCTC’s minimization procedures require in situations in which NCTC personnel discover purely law enforcement information with no foreign intelligence value in the course of reviewing minimized foreign intelligence information that the NCTC personnel either purge that information (if the information has been ingested into NCTC systems) or not use, retain, or disseminate the information (if the information has been viewed in FBI systems). No incidents of noncompliance with the NCTC minimization procedures were identified during this reporting period. The joint oversight team will be assessing NCTC’s compliance with its minimization procedures in the next reporting period.

This passage has some good news, and some bad news.

The good news is that NCTC gets no unminimized collection, which CIA and FBI do. We have no idea what FBI’s minimization procedures  (which does the minimization before NCTC gets it) look like — though elsewhere this Assessment makes it clear that most initial distributions of data from FBI come with US person identity hidden. But at least most US person data will be protected when NCTC gets it.

The bad news is that this is a recent development. It probably post-dates 2011, as John Bates makes no mention of NCTC’s minimization procedures in his October 3, 2011. And the reference to the compliance team reviewing this in the next Assessment (which would cover December 2012 through May 2013) suggests the minimization procedures may be very recent. What has happened with this data in the past?

And explain to me how, if NCTC “may not” receive that US person data that has been referred to FBI because it is evidence of a non-terrorist crime, its minimization procedures explain what to do if they happen to discover such data in their possession. Perhaps the problem is in processing that takes place at FBI (in that such information isn’t adequately segregated), not at NCTC?

Remember, much of the analysis that happens at NCTC can affect US person’s lives, but (unlike much of FBI’s work) doesn’t get reviewed by a court. The data that gets to them might well be particularly sensitive.

8 replies
  1. Adam Colligan says:

    I think this is interesting from a slightly different angle than the one you used. It’s curious to me how this is a strong (though maybe not 100 percent) admission about how bulk raw data gets treated at the NSA and FBI. I say “not 100 percent” because you could spin this to simply say that the NCTC isn’t authorized to place its own taps pursuant to 702. But I think the natural flow of the language is more easily explained by the inference that there are pools of unminimized data that get stored and passed around, and the NCTC just isn’t one of the places that gets to play.

    I think what you wanted explained to you is could actually be the more straightforward aspect of it. We have to remind ourselves that “minimized” doesn’t mean at all “analytically processed”. So if minimization is simply something as stupid as discarding 51%-confidence domestic information, you’ll obviously have tons of US-person/crime-only stuff passed in the unminimized pool. Getting minimized data doesn’t mean getting data that has any assurance of actually being data with foreign intelligence value. Minimization seems to be something like inferring what’s in the egg by whether you think a rooster’s been around; it’s only in a later analytic step that you “candle” it.

    But the implication, if you read it naturally, is that there are pools of unminimized data that are being retained by the NSA and FBI, even ones that have been analytically processed for non-foreign criminality, that (a) exist and (b) get passed to LEAs. So rather than asking “how can crime data get to the NCTC if it’s supposed to be minimized”, I would ask, “how can unminimized data even be extant enough in any system that it would be important to write a rule barring anyone from giving it to the NCTC?”.

    I also think there’s more than a little irony in the restriction on crime-only data making its way into the NCTC because it is *not* a law enforcement agency. By all means, let’s make sure that the only agencies not able to play with poisoned fruit are the ones in no position to use it to create a poisoned “parallel” criminal prosecution out of it!

    Stray observation. Sentence: NCTC has a ‘limited’ role. Next sentence hilariously playing off the meaning of the first sentence: “NCTC’s minimization procedures are ‘limited’. Because when you have a limited role, everything about it needs to be limited, including the robustness of control and oversight.

  2. orionATL says:

    what is the”nctc” ?

    an acronymn for “national counter-tertorism center”.

    an organization that is no longer needed, if ever it was because so-called “terrorism” attacks,

    which have been entirely “revenge/vindictiveness” attacks, not “terrorism” attacks,

    have declined from very rare to exceptionally rare.

    anyhoo, here is the obscurantist bureaucratic jargon that nctc uses to describe itself:

    do have a read!

  3. orionATL says:

    did you know this about the nctc?

    “… In 2012, the United States Attorney General Eric Holder granted the agency the authority to collect, store, and analyze extensive data collections on US citizens compiled from governmental and non-governmental sources for suspicious behavior through pattern analysis and to share the databases with foreign states. The effort has drawn controversy for its precrime effort which has been likened to the Information Awareness Office and its proposed mass surveillance. [3][4][5][6]…

    from miss wiki “nctc” entry.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @orionATL: Yes. I wrote extensively about it, which is one of the reasons I was concerned, bc the NCTC would crunch that data w/comm or metadata.

  5. john francis lee says:

    Speaking of how they get our data … I just saw this pdf from Glimmerglass linked from and wonder if you have seen it ? I did a google of


    and found nothing. It predates Snowden’s official drop by at least a year.

  6. Dredd says:

    The commanders who order the spying are uniformed 1% spying on the serfs:

    “The commanders who lead the nation’s military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire, including executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments. Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.

    The elite regional commanders who preside over large swaths of the planet don’t have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737 …” (American Feudalism – 3)

  7. orionATL says:



    the “you” was not specific to you, ew. it was part of a rhetorical question for any reader used to introduce an astonishing action by our cbief federal law enforcement official, the u.s. attorney-genrral.

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