FBI Given More Latitude
New Surveillance Rules Remove Evidence Hurdle
Susan Schmidt and Dan Eggen
New Justice Department guidelines to be unveiled today will give FBI agents latitude to monitor Internet sites, libraries and religious institutions without first having to offer evidence of potential criminal activity, officials said yesterday.
The changes, part of the Justice Department's effort to mount a proactive war on terror, will mark a significant change for the FBI. While agents have been permitted in the past to conduct such surveillance if they had specific information, they have been loath to do so because of confusion about what was actually permitted, law enforcement officials said.
Justice Department and FBI officials said the guidelines will remove serious barriers to the prevention of terrorism.
"The concern is when we're confronted with people like [Zacarias] Moussaoui, or even some of the hijackers, who are known to spend substantial periods of time in mosques or other similar situations, it is very difficult to find out what they're up to," said one senior law enforcement official.
Terrorist organizations operating in this country have sometimes used mosques as recruiting grounds and gathering places. Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric now imprisoned for his role in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, built a radical following with links to al Qaeda while preaching at mosques in Brooklyn and Jersey City, for example.
But as word of the new guidelines circulated yesterday, some civil liberties groups expressed fears of a Big Brother government monitoring its citizens.
"The FBI is now telling the American people, 'You no longer have to do anything unlawful in order to get that knock on the door,' " said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office. "You can be doing a prefectly legal activity like worshiping or talking in a chat room, they can spy on you anyway."
The new guidelines state simply that FBI agents may enter public places and forums, including publicly accessible Internet sites, to observe, develop leads and investigate. The guidelines do not specifically mention religious institutions, but a senior Justice Department official said last night that the impact of the changes will be dramatic in allowing the FBI to open a window on extremist activity in mosques.
"These are open places," he said. Now, "just because they are FBI agents, they don't have to turn a blind eye to activities visible to other people."
Under guidelines that have been in place for several decades, the FBI has not been permitted to send investigators into religious settings unless the agents can establish they are following a lead, or conducting an investigation or preliminary inquiry. As a practical matter, the Justice Department official said, "agents mistakenly think they have to stop at the church door."
In a written description of the guideline changes made available yesterday, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft stated that the department needs to be able to "proactively draw on available sources of information to identify terrorist threats and activities." In the past, he said, the FBI has been a reactive body, and the guidelines "generally barred the FBI from taking the initiative unless leads as to possible criminal activity or even more substantial evidence of crimes happened to come to the FBI from external sources."
The new rules will allow agents to surf the Internet for Web sites that might give hints to terrorist activity, according to the description. The new guidelines will allow investigators to seek out and "identify sites and forums in which bomb-making instructions, preparations for cyberterrorism, child pornography, and stolen credit card information are openly traded and disseminated."
Under the existing policy, agents could pursue online searches only when they could characterize them as checking leads or otherwise furthering an ongoing investigation.
"Pure surfing or searching for the purpose of initially developing leads was not allowed, even in relation to publicly available information that anyone else is free to access and observe," according to the new policy statement.
Agents will also be permitted to do topical research not directly related to a specific crime under the new guidelines, such as research on a biological agent.
The ACLU's Murphy said, however, that the new guidelines could open the door to the same kind of problems evident in the FBI's aggressive surveillance and harassment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Several other aspects of the new guidelines, disclosed earlier this week, will move some decision-making authority from FBI headquarters to field offices around the country. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III acknowledged yesterday that changes must be made to counter bureaucratic inertia at headquarters that led to missed clues in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Under the new guidelines, field office directors will be allowed to launch terrorism investigations and undercover probes without clearance from headquarters.
The guidelines are an outgrowth of privacy laws that prohibit the government from collecting information except for law enforcement purposes. In the past, the government developed information on specific cases but now needs broader intelligence to prevent terrorist acts.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]