By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008
FBI officials yesterday briefed civil liberties advocates and religious groups on a plan to offer agents an array of tactics to track national security threats, as lawmakers prepared to demand more information at a pair of oversight hearings next week.
The ground rules, known as attorney general guidelines, have been in the works for nearly 18 months. Authorities say they are designed to harmonize the techniques that FBI agents can use to investigate ordinary crimes, collect foreign intelligence or pursue possible terrorist threats.
Under the new plan, agents pursuing national security leads could employ physical surveillance, deploy informants and engage in "pretext" interviews with their identities hidden to assess the danger posed by a subject. Such threat assessments could be initiated even without a particular fact or concrete lead that a person had engaged in wrongdoing.
Community activists and the American Civil Liberties Union, which attended yesterday's briefing, question how a subject's race, ethnicity or religious orientation might become part of attracting FBI interest.
A senior Justice Department official and a top FBI representative said race could never be the sole factor for opening an investigation. But it might be taken into account when investigators scrutinize groups, such as Hezbollah or the Aryan Brotherhood, that draw their members from specific populations, or, for example, when they follow leads about suspicious groups of Muslim men boarding an airplane.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III will appear next week before the House and Senate Judiciary committees, where lawmakers say he will be asked about the timing and rationale for overhauling the rules. House and Senate Democrats already are characterizing the move as a last-ditch bid to change intelligence-gathering only weeks before the presidential election.
But senior FBI and Justice officials, who briefed reporters on the condition that they not be identified, asserted that the changes were merely the latest in a series of steps to make the bureau more proactive after intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The measures are scheduled to take effect Oct. 1, though changes still could be made in some areas, including ground rules for FBI agents who secretly infiltrate activist groups or collect intelligence at public demonstrations and events without a suspected terrorist threat.
The plan also would allow FBI agents to collect information in the United States on behalf of foreign intelligence authorities, as long as their participation aligned with U.S. interests. It would allow agents to gather intelligence from citizens within the United States about areas of general interest, such as Venezuelan oil supply, at the direction of the White House or the director of national intelligence.
Michael German, a policy counsel at the ACLU, urged lawmakers to do a "thorough investigation" of the guidelines and the way they will work in practice. More than 30 years ago, "the abuse of these authorities is exactly what caused the department to create the guidelines in the first place," he said.