U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced new guidelines Thursday to make it easier for the FBI to monitor the activities of suspected terrorists operating inside the United States.
The new rules put forward by Attorney General Ashcroft will ease long-standing restrictions on domestic spying that FBI officials say hamper their efforts to detect and prevent acts of terrorism.
"In many instances, the guidelines bar FBI field agents from taking the initiative to detect and prevent future terrorist attacks or acts, unless the FBI learns of possible criminal activity from external sources," he said. "Under the current guidelines, FBI investigators cannot, for example, surf the web in the same way that you and I can to look for information."
The new guidelines give the FBI broader authority to monitor Internet sites, libraries, churches and political organizations in its search for potential terrorists.
In the past, FBI agents were allowed to monitor suspicious internet sites only if they were linked to a specific, ongoing criminal investigation. But under the new guidelines, agents can initiate their own online research and will not have to wait for approval from FBI headquarters in Washington.
In another major shift, FBI agents will be able to conduct surveillance in public places and forums without first having to establish that they are following a specific criminal lead. That means it will be easier for agents to monitor activities at religious institutions, including mosques.
FBI Director Robert Mueller says the new guidelines will help agents to track terrorists within the United States. "We will also need to free up our extremely talented law enforcement agents to aggressively investigate possible terrorist plots without unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles and hurdles," he said.
Civil liberties groups immediately voiced concern, fearing that Attorney General Ashcroft was restoring domestic spying powers to the FBI that the bureau abused during the 1950's and the 1960s.
A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union said the new FBI powers would do little to make Americans safer but would inevitably make citizens less free.
President Bush tried to address those concerns during a question and answer session with reporters at the White House. "We intend to honor our Constitution and respect the freedoms that we hold so dear," he said. "And secondly, we want to make sure we do everything we can to prevent a further attack."
Announcement of the new investigative guidelines came one day after the FBI director announced a massive reorganization plan designed to improve the bureau's ability to detect and prevent terrorist attacks.