FBI Gets New Rules on Early Terror Probes

By CURT ANDERSON, The Associated Press

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 Ashcroft.

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 crime.

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 investigation.

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.

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.

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