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Key Republican blasts new FBI guidelines

Sensenbrenner: "We want to make sure that the FBI, that hasn't had a good track record lately, doesn't go to the other side of the line."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department's plan to give the FBI more domestic surveillance power "has gone too far," House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner said Saturday.

Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, said he has called Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller to appear before his committee "to justify why the 1976 regulations on domestic spying, that have worked so well for the last 25 or 26 years, have to be changed."

"I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively ... going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King," Sensenbrenner told CNN's "Novak, Hunt and Shields."

Earlier this week, Ashcroft announced that guidelines limiting domestic surveillance that were put in place by the Ford administration would be relaxed to allow FBI agents to attend public political meetings and scour Internet sites to obtain information about possible terrorist activities. (Full story)

Under the guidelines, named for then-Attorney General Edward Levi, the FBI could initiate such surveillance only if it had a reasonable suspicion that a crime was being planned.

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"Merely having the FBI go in and investigate political expression which might not be approved by a majority of the people, but which is protected by the First Amendment, comes awful close to the edge," said Sensenbrenner, a conservative normally aligned with the Bush administration. "We want to make sure that the FBI, that hasn't had a good track record lately, doesn't go to the other side of the line."

Sensenbrenner said the guidelines were put in place because of "documented excesses" by the FBI, and he said no one has yet made the case that the guidelines contributed to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"They have been extensively reviewed by Congress, as well as by the Carter, Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations. And none of these presidents and their attorneys general decided that we needed to have a significant modification of those guidelines."

Sensenbrenner also complained that he did not find out until about two hours before Ashcroft's announcement "that the Levi guidelines had been tossed into the wastebasket."

Rep. John Conyers, the leading Democrat on the committee, issued a statement Thursday calling the new guidelines a "step backwards for civil liberties in this country." (Full story)

"The administration's continued defiance of constitutional safeguards seems to have no end in sight," Conyers wrote. "This decision decimates the Fourth Amendment."

Friday, in an interview with CNN's Larry King Live, Ashcroft insisted that the new regulations for domestic surveillance will not mean that the FBI will invade the privacy of individual Americans. Ashcroft said the new rules would allow agents "to go to public places on the same terms and conditions as other members of the public for counterterrorism purposes."

"Now, that means if there is a rally of people who are criticizing the United States and its policies and saying that the United States will someday perhaps be destroyed because of that, the FBI agent can go and listen to what's being said. But it's a public meeting. This is not wiretapping," he said.

He also noted that law enforcement agencies other than the FBI have always had the ability to monitor public information.

"This is reading what people put into the public domain," Ashcroft said. "If you hire a billboard, and you write what you're saying on the billboard, I don't think it's an invasion of privacy for the FBI driving by to look at the billboard and read it."




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