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Proposal would give FBI new power to track threats

Surveillance tools raising concerns on civil liberties

By Larry Margasak
Associated Press / September 13, 2008
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WASHINGTON - The Bush administration proposed guidelines yesterday that would give the FBI more tools to assess national security and foreign intelligence threats.

Agents would be permitted to use tactics that are now allowed only in criminal cases: physical surveillance, recruitment of sources, and "pretext interviews," in which the real purpose would not be revealed.

Justice Department and FBI senior officials briefed reporters on the draft guidelines, but would not be quoted by name because they were discussing proposals that are still likely to be changed.

Some Democratic senators and civil liberties groups have said the proposals would allow Americans to be targeted in part because of their race, ethnicity, or religion, and would allow them to be spied on without any other basis for suspicion.

The American Civil Liberties Union quickly criticized the proposed guidelines. The new rules would "give the FBI the ability to begin surveillance without factual evidence, stating that a generalized 'threat' is enough to use certain techniques," the group said.

"Also under the new guidelines, a person's race or ethnic background could be used as a factor in opening an investigation, a move the ACLU believes will institute racial profiling as a matter of policy."

The administration officials acknowledged that those factors could play a role in national security and foreign intelligence cases. But they said they can already be considered under 2003 rules that are not changing.

FBI Director Robert Mueller will testify about the guidelines in Congress next week. The officials said they want the guidelines to take effect Oct. 1.

According to the officials, the 2003 surveillance, recruitment, and interview rules are too restrictive to allow the FBI to become a post-Sept. 11 intelligence agency that can stop terrorists before they strike.

"It is simply not responsible to say that race may never be taken into account when conducting an investigation," said Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, who commented apart from yesterday's briefing. "The reality is that a number of criminal and terror groups have very strong ethnic associations."

He said the bureau cannot ignore La Cosa Nostra's Italian membership or that Hezbollah is largely Lebanese, "any more than it could ignore the identification of a bank robber as a short white male."

Existing guidelines do not allow an investigation based on factors such as race alone; there must be some other evidence of a threat or crime, the senior officials said at the briefing.

The threat assessment could trigger a formal investigation of Americans in foreign intelligence and national security matters.

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