Ashcroft Revises FBI Guidelines to Counter Terrorism
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 31, 2002 The FBI is freeing field agents to "swiftly and vigorously" counter potential terrorist threats without waiting for headquarters approval or hassling with bureaucratic red tape, according to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
If you want to prevent terrorist attacks, he said, "you can't limit your investigators to investigating only crimes that have been committed. You have to authorize the investigation to develop information that might help signal that a crime is about to be committed or might be committed, so that action can be taken to prevent (it)."
As of Sept. 11, Ashcroft said at a May 30 news briefing, countering terrorism became the central goal of the law enforcement and national security mission of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI and other Justice Department officials have revised the bureau's investigative guidelines to give field agents the legal authority needed to protect the American people from terrorist attacks, he said.
The FBI has 56 district offices, 44 foreign offices and more than 11,000 agents. "We had lots of puzzle pieces but we weren't always able to put the puzzle together," Ashcroft said. The FBI's new goal, he said, is to free the men and women on the front lines from the "bureaucratic, organizational and operational restrictions and structures that hindered them from doing their jobs effectively."
Existing guidelines barred field agents from taking the initiative to detect and prevent future attacks or from taking action unless the FBI learns of possible criminal activity from external sources, Ashcroft said.
"If you had to come and ask for permission to go and look for puzzle pieces, or there were serious hurdles to finding those puzzle pieces, then you weren't getting as many pieces as you wanted," he noted.
The revised guidelines reflect four overriding principles:
o The FBI must not be deprived of using all lawful, authorized methods in investigations, consistent with the Constitution and with statutory authority, to pursue and prevent terrorist actions.
o The FBI must intervene early and investigate aggressively where information exists and that information suggests the possibility of terrorism.
o Unnecessary procedural red tape must not interfere with the effective detention, investigation and prevention of terrorist activities.
o The FBI must draw proactively on all lawful sources of information to identify terrorist threats and activities.
Previously, Ashcroft said, FBI investigators had no clear authority to use commercial data services that any business in America can use. They couldn't surf the World Wide Web in the same way as private citizens to look for information. Nor could they simply go to a public event or public place to observe ongoing activities.
The old guidelines were issued when Soviet Communism was the greatest threat to the United States, the Internet was not widely in use and terrorist threats to the American homeland involved mainly domestic hate groups, Ashcraft noted.
"FBI agents have been inhibited from attending public events -- events open to any other citizen -- not because they are barred by the U.S. Constitution or barred by any federal law enacted by Congress, but because of the lack of a clear authority under administrative guidelines issued decades ago," he stressed.
Under the revised guidelines, which Ashcroft said are effective immediately, the FBI can identify and track foreign terrorists by combining its investigative results with information obtained from other lawful sources, such as foreign intelligence and commercial data services. The FBI, he said, will also "be able to enter and observe public places and forums, just as any member of the public has the right to enter and observe what is happening in those places."
The guidelines clear the way for investigators to detect and prevent terrorism, Ashcroft said. They are not to be abused for other purposes. He said the guidelines include clear instructions about what kind of records can be kept.
The abuses once alleged about the FBI decades ago, such as keeping files and records about prominent figures in this country, are not allowed under the guidelines or the statutes regarding privacy, which are incorporated into the guidelines, Ashcroft said.
It's not enough to investigate, prosecute and punish crimes once they've been committed; the FBI must also act to prevent terrorists from claiming more innocent lives, according to Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson. "The set of tools the attorney general has just announced will better enable law enforcement to detect and incapacitate would-be terrorists by eliminating unnecessary and outdated bureaucratic constraints."