The FBI is preparing new investigative guidelines for its agents that civil libertarians say would make it easier for agents to search commercial or law enforcement databases, conduct lie detector tests, search people's trash and conduct physical surveillance, sometimes without any suspicion of wrongdoing.
The FBI says the changes are merely fine-tuning of existing rules.
The new guidelines are still under review inside the law enforcement agency. They will be contained in a new edition of the FBI manual, the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide.
"The proposed changes primarily clarify and enhance the definitions of terms and procedures" already in use, FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni said in a statement. "Each proposed change has been carefully looked at and considered against the backdrop of the tools our employees need to accomplish their mission, the possible risks associated with use of those tools and the controls that are in place. Overall, this is ... not any major change."
Civil liberties groups disagreed.
"What we find troubling" is that the FBI is loosening requirements of 3-year-old guidelines which private groups feel already contain "very broad authority," said Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates. Khera's organization was among those receiving an FBI briefing late last month on the proposed updates to the guidelines.
"What they shared with us doesn't allay our concerns and raises new ones for us," Khera said.
The impending set of guidelines "adds more techniques and further rolls back oversight," said Emily Berman, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
In 2008, new guidelines formally created a category of investigation called an assessment in which the bureau can examine whether a person or group poses a national security or criminal threat without having any suspicion they have engaged in wrongdoing.
Under current rules, agents must open an assessment before they may search for information about a person in a commercial or law enforcement database. Under the new rules, agents will be allowed to search such databases without opening an assessment. Caproni said agents could only retain the results of such searches if there is a legitimate law enforcement purpose for retaining the information.
The FBI did impose at least one new restriction on assessments _ a requirement that such inquiries be based on investigative leads. Even with that change, however, the threshold for opening an assessment is lower than that of a preliminary investigation, which requires a factual basis for suspecting someone of wrongdoing.
According to government officials who are familiar with the new guidelines and who spoke only on condition of anonymity about them because they have not yet been compiled, the new rules also would:
_Relax a restriction on administering lie-detector tests and searching people's trash, enabling agents to use those techniques for an assessment in which they are evaluating a target as a potential informant.
_Remove a limitation on the use of surveillance squads, which are trained to surreptitiously follow targets. Under current rules, the squads can be used only once during an assessment, but the new rules will allow agents to use such squads repeatedly, but subject to other restrictions, including the length of time the surveillance may continue without requiring re-authorization by a supervisor.
_Enable an agent or an informant to surreptitiously attend up to five meetings of an organization, such as a religious group.
The New York Times first reported on the new guidelines.