WASHINGTON (AP) - The FBI will be able to more easily check a
person's background for potential terrorist activities under national
security guidelines issued Wednesday by Attorney General John
Civil libertarians said the rules could invite abuses against innocent people.
The guidelines enable the FBI to conduct a "threat assessment" of
potential terrorists or terrorist activity without initial evidence
of a crime or national security threat, as required to begin a more
formal preliminary or full investigation.
The purpose is to ensure the FBI approaches these investigations
"with an eye toward early intervention and prevention of acts of
terrorism before they occur," according to the guidelines.
The FBI will be allowed to collect information on "individuals,
groups and organizations of possible investigative interest" in
national security cases in the ways that agents already can in cases
involving more traditional crimes such as illegal drugs and organized
Ashcroft issues similar revised guidelines for these traditional
criminal investigations in May 2002.
The FBI still would have to get court approval in terrorism and
espionage cases for a more intrusive technique such as a wiretap or
search warrant. But the relaxed guidelines would, for example, enable
the FBI to run a credit check on an individual or run a person's name
through law enforcement databases without opening a formal
Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties
Union, said the guidelines raise another caution flag in the nation's
fight against terrorism. The ACLU and others have criticized the
anti-terrorism Patriot Act that expanded government's surveillance
and detention powers after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"This is exactly what Americans are worried about," he said. "It's
the notion that the government can put your life under a microscope
without any evidence that you're doing anything wrong."
Edgar said the changes could mark a return to the days when the FBI
routinely opened investigations on Vietnam War protesters and other
dissidents, before the first national security investigation
guidelines were issued in 1976.
But Justice Department officials said FBI actions under the revised
guidelines remain under supervision of both the department and
Congress, and that agents still would have to observe all
constitutional and legal protections.
"These guidelines maintain the important safeguards of individual
rights while updating our investigatory practices to meet the new
priority of preventing terrorists from killing innocent Americans,"
Justice spokesman Mark Corallo said.
The guidelines require the FBI to share more information with federal
agencies and with state and local officials about such things as
terrorist threats. Local police and safety officials have frequently
complained about the vagueness of information regarding threats and
investigations in their communities.
In addition, the FBI will have to notify the deputy attorney general
if officials at headquarters turn down a field office's proposal to
initiate a preliminary or full national security investigation.
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This is aimed at preventing a recurrence of the situation involving
accused Sept. 11 plotter and avowed al-Qaida member Zacarias
Moussaoui. In that case, the FBI's field office in Minneapolis was
barred by headquarters from aggressively investigating Moussaoui
prior to the attacks.