FBI Expands Power


FBI expands agents’ investigative powers in revised manual”
by Charlie Savage
New York Times

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“Washington – The Federal Bureau of Investigation is giving significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents – allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who attracted their attention. The FBI soon plans to issue a new edition of its manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, according to an official who has worked on the draft document and several others who have been briefed on its contents. The new rules add to several measures taken over the past decade to give agents more latitude as they search for signs of criminal or terrorist activity. The FBI recently briefed several privacy advocates about the coming changes. Among them, Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a lawyer for the American Civil liberties Union, argued it was unwise to further ease restrictions on agents’ power to use potentially intrusive techniques, especially if they lacked a firm reason to suspect someone of wrongdoing. “Claiming additional authorities to investigate people only further raises the potential for abuse,” German said, pointing to complaints about the bureau’s surveillance of domestic political advocacy group and mosques and to an inspector general’s findings in 2007 that the FBI had improperly used “national security letters” to obtain information like people’s phone bills. Valerie Caproni, the FBI general counsel, said the bureau had fixed the problems with nation security letters and had taken steps to make sure they would not recur. She also said the bureau – which does not need permission to alter its manual so long as the rules fit within broad guidelines issued by the attorney general – had carefully weighed the risks and the benefits if each change. “Every one of these has been carefully looked at and considered against the backdrop of why the employees need to be able to do it , what are the possible risks and what are the controls,” she said, portraying  the modifications to the rules as “more like fine-tuning than major changes.” Some of the most notable changes apply to the lowest category of investigations, called an “assessment.” The category, created in December 2008, allows agents to look into people and organizations “pro actively” and without firm evidence for suspecting criminal or terrorist activity. Under current rules, agents must open such an inquiry before they can 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 making a record about their decision. German said the change would make it harder to detect and deter inappropriate use of databases for personal purposes. But Caproni said it was too cumbersome to require agents to open formal inquiries before running quick checks. She also said agents could not put information uncovered from such searches into FBI files unless they later opened an assessment. The new rules will also relax a restriction on administering lie-detector tests and searching people’s trash. Under current rules agents cannot use such techniques until they open a “preliminary investigation,” which – unlike assessment – requires a factual basis for suspecting someone of wrongdoing. But soon agents will be allowed to use those techniques for one kind of assessment, too: when they are evaluating a target as a potential informant. Agents have asked for that power in part because they want the ability to use information found in a subject might pose a threat to agents. The revisions also clarify what constitutes “undisclosed participation” in an organization by an FBI agent or informant, which is subject to special rules – most of which have not been made public. The new manual says an agent or an informant may surreptitiously attend up to five meetings of a group before those rules apply – unless the goal is to join the group, in which case the rules would apply immediately. At least one change would be tightened, rather than relaxed, the rules. Currently, a special agent in charge of a field office can delegate the authority to approve sending an informant to a religious service. The new manual will require such officials to handle those decisions personally.” –page 4A M St. Paul Pioneer Press June 13th 2011 

 

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