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FBI gets more domestic spy power

Removing 'unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles'

Ashcroft: 'War against terrorism is the highest mission.'  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In a move raising concern among some civil libertarians and lawmakers, the Justice Department said Thursday it is easing restrictions on domestic surveillance for FBI counterterrorism operations.

"The war against terrorism is the central mission and the highest priority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation," said U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Because of that priority, he said the department is granting FBI field offices more authority to launch terrorism and undercover investigations, shifting such responsibility away from the agency's headquarters in Washington.

Speaking at a news conference Thursday, FBI Director Robert Mueller said the changes remove "unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles."

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The changes follow widespread criticism that the nation's premier law enforcement agency failed to follow up on clues that could have, collectively, pointed to a pending terrorist attack before September 11, and that FBI headquarters had stymied the efforts of field offices to pursue such clues.

And they were announced one day after Mueller and Ashcroft outlined an overhaul of the FBI with the prevention of terrorist attacks now the agency's top priority.

Will 'Big Brother' be everywhere?

The changes announced Thursday to what are known as the Attorney General Guidelines also allow field agents to seek warrants without having to go through headquarters.

The changes allow the FBI to gather information on individuals even if they are not under criminal investigation. The techniques would include monitoring Internet sites, as well as libraries and religious institutions.

Some of the changes were greeted warily by civil libertarian groups.

"People who go to places of worship, people who go to libraries, people who are in chat rooms, are going to have 'Big Brother' listening in even though there's no evidence that they are involved in anything illegal whatsoever," said Laura Murphy, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Justice Department officials said the changes only give the FBI the same powers that private citizens have.

"Under the old rules, the FBI could not go into public places to seek information unless it was tied to a crime that had already been committed," said one official. "We are turning the focus of the FBI 180 degrees from prosecution to prevention of future terrorist acts. All these guidelines do is free those agents to use every means possible under the Constitution and the law to keep us safe."

Critics can't have it both ways

"What it means is that the FBI will be able to do what any private citizen or any cop on the beat can do, which is go anywhere the public can go for information," the official added.

Oliver "Buck" Revell, ex-associate director of the FBI, said critics can't have it both ways -- faulting the agency for not doing enough to thwart terrorist attacks, but complaining when the agency turns to more aggressive information-gathering techniques.

"Some of these activities will be chilling, there's no question of it," Revell said. "But if the public expects and if the Congress expects there to be prevention of terror activities, there's going to have to be the collection of information, and that collection at times will certainly be problematic to people's concerns."

That issue of coordination with the field offices has become critical in light of a memo from an FBI whistle-blower in Minneapolis who said headquarters stymied efforts last summer to learn about one terrorist suspect, Zacarias Moussaoui, who was later charged as a conspirator in the September 11 hijackings.

Had the new guidelines been in place last summer, the FBI field agents in Minneapolis would not have had to get headquarters approval for seeking a search warrant in the Moussaoui case. Approval could now come from the "special agent in charge" at a field office.




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