- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

The Justice Department yesterday gave the FBI expanded authority to monitor terrorism, including the ability to search Internet sites and to target any public place or event religious and political gatherings among them in the hunt for terrorist suspects.
Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the assumption of vast new powers, calling it a move to change the FBI from "reactive to proactive." The guidelines allow agents to pursue leads in terrorist investigations without evidence of a specific crime and without having to get approval from FBI headquarters.
"Today, I am announcing comprehensive revisions to the department's investigative guidelines," Mr. Ashcroft said during a Justice Department press conference. "The guidelines emphasize that the FBI must not be deprived of using all lawful, authorized methods in investigations, consistent with the Constitution to pursue and prevent terrorist actions."
The attorney general, countering criticism yesterday about the new guidelines from civil rights groups and in response to a question about "domestic spying" by the FBI, insisted the guidelines would be used only for "detecting and preventing terrorism."
The FBI will not be allowed to build files on individuals or organizations, he said.
Mr. Ashcroft said searches and seizures of information or documents still must be conducted under the authority of a warrant signed by a judge and that no information obtained from any visit to a public place or event can be retained unless it relates to potential criminal or terrorist activity.
"The abuses that have been alleged about the FBI decades ago would not be allowed," he said, referring to the widespread FBI gathering of information on prominent people and political groups through the 1970s. Mr. Ashcroft said the guidelines provide limitations and guidance "over and above all requirements and safeguards imposed by the Constitution." He said they conform with federal law.
The new guidelines were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said they could result in a loosening of restrictions on domestic spying and a renewal of the abuses of the past. The guidelines also were criticized by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which said history had shown that the "FBI won't stop at passive information gathering."
Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office, also charged that the government was "rewarding failure," saying the administration's response to apparent FBI intelligence failures before September 11 was to "give itself new powers rather than seriously investigating why the failures occurred."
Jason Erb, governmental affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, questioned whether the openness of mosques and other holy places should be "abused by using tactics of deception to spy on a religious minority engaged in lawful activities."
A senior Justice Department official added that the guidelines allow the FBI to do "what any other law-enforcement organization, or in fact any public citizen, can do go online, go to public places or events and see what's going on."
Mr. Ashcroft said FBI field agents have been frustrated in the search for terrorist suspects because of internal restrictions that hamper their ability to conduct investigations. He said the old guidelines contributed to that frustration, barring agents "from taking the initiative to detect and prevent future terrorist acts."
He said the old guidelines created restrictions that resulted in a "competitive advantage for terrorists" who use sophisticated techniques and modern computer systems to compile information for "targeting and attacking innocent Americans."
Mr. Ashcroft said the guidelines outline four "overriding principles":
The war against terrorism is the central mission and highest priority of the FBI, and the bureau "must not be deprived of using all lawful, authorized methods in investigations to pursue and prevent terrorist actions."
Terrorism prevention is the key objective under the revised guidelines, and the Justice Department will intervene early and investigate aggressively, not waiting to "sift through the rubble following a terrorist attack."
Unnecessary procedural red tape must not interfere with detecting, investigating and preventing terrorist activities, and agents in charge of FBI field offices will have the authority to approve and renew terrorism probes rather than waiting for approval from Washington.
The FBI must draw proactively on all lawful sources of information to identify terrorist threats and activities, and agents cannot be kept from obtaining public information that "everyone else is free to see."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, criticized by Congress for the bureau's failure to respond to indications of terrorism before September 11, said the new guidelines were necessary to combat terrorism.
President Bush endorsed the new guidelines and a wide-ranging FBI reorganization announced Wednesday. He said the administration will "honor our Constitution and respect the freedoms that we hold so dear," adding that the new guidelines seek to make sure "we do everything we can to prevent a further attack, to protect America."


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