Thursday, October 9, 2008

Congressional Democrats are calling on the Bush administration to hold off implementing new rules that broaden the FBI‘s investigative authority until a new administration can approve them next year.

“It is not appropriate for the current administration to make such sweeping changes to FBI procedures at this late date, only a month before the election,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, adding that the changes should be provided “as suggestions [for] the new administration to consider early next year.”

The new rules, which are scheduled to take effect Dec. 1, were published Friday after a contentious process during which the Justice Department engaged in what officials say was an unprecedented consultation effort to hear concerns from lawmakers and civil liberties advocates.

Officials said Monday that the consultation had pushed back the schedule for implementation two months already and that because the rewrite had been initiated at the request of career FBI officials and not political appointees, no further delay would be appropriate.

“The implementation date has been set,” spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told United Press International. “It’s December 1.”

The new rules are consolidated guidelines from the attorney general on the bureau’s domestic operations, merging three previous sets of guidelines and providing for the first time a single set of rules governing the full gamut of FBI activities, from criminal investigations to counterintelligence operations and intelligence gathering about and assessment of national security threats.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said the new guidelines “provide more uniform, clearer, and simpler rules” designed to help “the FBI to become, among other things, a more flexible and adept collector of intelligence,” as recommended by the September 11 commission and the weapons of mass destruction commission.

The guidelines govern the circumstances under which FBI agents are allowed to initiate certain activities - surveillance, for example, or public records searches - potentially bringing the bureau’s extensive panoply of information-gathering capabilities to bear on a person or group.

Critics said the new rules lower the bar for agents to target Americans too far.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the rules give the bureau “broad new powers to conduct surveillance and use other intrusive investigative techniques on Americans without requiring any indication of wrongdoing or any approval even from FBI supervisors.”

Michael German, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “Not since J. Edgar Hoover ran the place has the FBI claimed the right to investigate American citizens without a factual predicate,” calling it “extraordinarily dangerous.”

The guidelines redefine a category of FBI activity called “assessment,” introduced in 2003 as a proactive effort by agents to identify potential terrorist threats or other dangers to national security.

The new guidelines say assessments designed to lead to a criminal investigation can be undertaken without a factual predicate - evidence that a crime has been committed or is being planned - or approval from FBI supervisors, except under certain conditions.

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