FBI Wants More Tools for Terrorism Cases

Bureau wants more latitude; critics say new rules could give FBI too much power.

ByABC News
September 12, 2008, 7:21 PM

Sept. 12, 2008— -- The Bush administration is proposing guidelines that give FBI agents far more latitude to assess foreign intelligence and terrorism threats in the same way that they do in more routine criminal cases.

Under the new guidelines, the FBI would be allowed to use the following tools to assess national security threats before launching preliminary investigations: physical surveillance, developing informants, and so-called "pretext interviews," in which agents can ask questions without having to identify themselves as from the FBI.

In a briefing with reporters today, senior FBI and DOJ officials said it makes no sense that those tools could be used by agents if they were trying to assess whether drugs were being sold out of bars in certain neighborhoods -- but not if they were trying to assess if terrorist fundraising was being conducted in those neighborhood bars.

Such rules are interfering, those officials said, with the FBI's expanding role as an intelligence gathering agency. But the ACLU today criticized the proposal as overreaching by the government.

"Handing this kind of latitude to an organization already rife with internal oversight problems is a huge mistake," said Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU's Washington legislative office director. "Agents will be given unparalleled leeway to investigate Americans without proper suspicion, and that will inevitably result in constitutional violations."

Critics also say loosening restrictions could lead to racial profiling. "The new guidelines offer no specifics on how the FBI will ensure that race and religion are not used improperly as proxies for suspicion, nor do they sufficiently limit the extent to which government agents can infiltrate groups exercising their First Amendment rights," charged ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.

But Justice Department officials pushed back, rejecting any suggestion that the proposed guidelines would encourage racial profiling. They said race alone can never be the sole factor in launching inquiries.