The Bush administration issued new rules Friday designed to allow the FBI to pursue potential national security threats with the same vigor and techniques used against common criminals.
The rules, to take effect Dec. 1, are a road map to the FBI’s transformation, but liberal groups say the guidelines will come at a cost to constitutional protections.
The bureau made its reputation many decades ago by successfully pursuing bank robbers, and the Justice Department says it wants to ensure that the FBI can now meet the biggest threats of the 21st century: national security and terrorism.
The road map consolidates once-separate rules for assessing threats and investigating traditional crimes and terrorism. They tell FBI agents what they can and can’t do, including when to conduct surveillance, use informants and consider race or ethnicity in determining whether someone is a suspect.
While some changes were made from preliminary rules shown to reporters, lawmakers and public interest organizations, the alterations were not enough to silence critics who say the FBI will now be able to begin investigating people with no indication they did anything wrong.
Anticipating the criticism, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III issued a joint statement saying: “We are confident these guidelines will assist the FBI in carrying out its critical national security and foreign intelligence missions while also protecting privacy and civil liberties.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was not reassured.
“I am concerned that the guidelines continue the pattern of this administration of expanding authority to gather and use Americans’ private information without protections for privacy or checks to prevent abuse and misuse,” Mr. Leahy said.
Three Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee asked the department to postpone the effective date until a new president takes office in January and has an opportunity to review the procedures.
“Questions still remain about why there seems to be a rush to change these procedures in the last days of this administration,” Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, Robert C. Scott of Virginia, and Jerrold Nadler of New York said in a joint statement, adding that it was unclear whether the guidelines will result in FBI agents “monitoring the religious and political activities of innocent people.”
Elisebeth Cook, chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, said in an interview that several changes were made to accommodate critics’ concerns and protect civil rights and liberties.
“To say we’re in a brave new world, and the FBI has new ability to investigate without evidence of wrongdoing is misunderstood,” she said.
Addressing concerns of racial profiling, Ms. Cook said race is only used as one factor in an investigation when it’s relevant - such as describing a suspect.
The guidelines cannot undercut any constitutional protections, state laws, executive orders or federal policies, she said.
Among the changes between a preliminary draft and the final rules:
• Investigations related to civil disorders now have a time limit of 30 days. The investigations are only to determine whether the president needs to use the military.
• The guidelines “cut way back,” Ms. Cook said, in the types of information that can be collected in cases of civil disorders. Only four techniques will be allowed: checking public records, FBI records, other government records and online sources. Any other methods would have to be approved by the attorney general or one of several top deputies who are confirmed by the Senate.
• Language was added to say the FBI “shall” protect speech and practice of religious rights, instead of “should.”