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U.S.: FBI Gets New Powers For Domestic Intelligence Gathering

  • Andrew Tully

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks in America, the U.S. Congress has given the Justice Department broad new powers to mount investigations into suspected terrorist activities. Now the FBI, which is part of the Justice Department, is being granted even more latitude in gathering intelligence within the country, raising concerns among some civil liberties advocates.

Washington, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- America's leading law enforcement agency is getting broad new powers to gather domestic intelligence as it changes its mission from fighting crime to preventing acts of terrorism.

Three decades ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) imposed strict limits on how its agents could conduct surveillance. This was in response to the bureau's monitoring of activists critical of the U.S. government during the 1960s.

Under those restrictions, FBI agents have been forbidden to mount counterterrorism inquiries, especially probes of groups with religious affiliations, unless they could formally establish that they had evidence of the commission of a federal crime. And they have since been forbidden to randomly explore the Internet for evidence of crimes.

Under the new guidelines, undercover agents can be sent to churches, synagogues, and mosques, or they can freely enter Internet "chat rooms," in search of suspicious activity. And the FBI is now permitted to subscribe to what are called commercial Internet services that collect and analyze data in search of similar information.

The FBI's law enforcement responsibilities have traditionally been limited to crimes that go beyond the jurisdiction of a single state, or to enforcing federal laws against such crimes as bank robbery and kidnapping. It also is responsible for gathering intelligence, but only within U.S. borders. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is responsible for overseas intelligence.

On 30 May, FBI Director Robert Mueller and his superior, Attorney General John Ashcroft, announced the new guidelines for agents during a news conference at FBI headquarters in Washington.

It was the second consecutive day on which the FBI publicly discussed sweeping changes in response to what Mueller acknowledges was its poor intelligence gathering in the months leading up to the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on 11 September. The missteps have tarnished the image of the bureau.

On 29 May, Mueller announced at a news conference that the bureau was being dramatically reorganized to shift its focus from fighting crime to preventing terrorist attacks.

Mueller has also said the easing of guidelines for surveillance within the United States will streamline his agents' job of finding terrorists before they have a chance to strike. "We also need to free up our extremely talented law enforcement agents to aggressively investigate possible terrorist plots without unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles or hurdles."

Ashcroft agreed, saying that FBI agents are frustrated by the old guidelines. He said the nation would be better protected now that agents can operate more freely. "Our philosophy today is not to wait and sift through the rubble following a terrorist attack. Rather, the FBI must intervene early and investigate aggressively where information exists, and that existing information suggests the possibility of terrorism."

Ashcroft also said the guidelines are consistent with the new investigatory powers that Congress granted to his Justice Department last fall, shortly after the September attacks.

At the White House on 30 May, U.S. President George W. Bush said the new intelligence-gathering powers being granted to the FBI were carefully thought out and that he believes they do not restrict Americans' civil liberties. "We intend to honor our constitution and respect the freedoms that we hold so dear and, secondly, we want to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent a further attack, to protect America. The FBI needed to change."

But civil liberties advocates and even some security analysts say these new powers may set a dangerous precedent that could lead to a serious erosion of the freedoms Americans enjoy. One such opponent is Ivan Eland, the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, an independent policy center in Washington.

Eland told RFE/RL that he believes the bureau has not always been effective in collecting intelligence. He says that by looking broadly for terrorists, they probably will not find more sophisticated suspects, but they will subject law-abiding citizens to gratuitous scrutiny. "We have the worst of all worlds. We don't get the coverage of the terrorists, but we get the coverage of the people who aren't doing anything wrong."

Eland says he is particularly disturbed by the FBI's new powers to investigate groups with religious affiliations, particularly Islamic affiliations. He says the targets of such inquiries could eventually include churches and local school groups known as parent-teacher associations, (PTAs), which are considered to be among the most benign and respected of American institutions. "Why is a mosque any different than a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue? Or, you know, the PTA meetings? What if they suspect somebody at the PTA meeting? Are they going to send an undercover agent there?"

James Phillips, who studies security issues at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington think tank, disagrees. He told RFE/RL that it is important for the U.S. government to err on the side of security at a time of national crisis, even if it entails what he calls a slight -- and brief -- erosion of civil liberties.

Phillips says he is not impressed by arguments that the FBI's new investigatory powers permit it to conduct surveillance of groups with religious links. "I don't think it's a violation of freedom of religion, but I think it is going to restrict the freedom of terrorists, and that's an important distinction."

Both Phillips and Eland say they do not believe the FBI's new powers could possibly erode civil liberties to the point where the United States becomes a repressive society. But Eland stresses that democracies, because of their openness, tend to be fragile, and he says it is important to guard against giving government too much power over its citizens.

Phillips agrees. He says he would prefer that the Justice Department restrict the new investigatory authority with what is known as a "sunset provision." Under such a provision, the powers would expire after a predetermined time period, and could not be extended without an act of Congress.

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