WASHINGTON, May 30 (UPI) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft released new FBI guidelines Thursday that he said would allow agents to take the initiative in the fight against terrorism, a move civil libertarians claim turns a war on terror, into a war on freedom.
The new guidelines remove some of the explicit or implied restrictions that kept FBI agents out of public places, such as mosques, and from surfing the Internet in search of information on terrorism and other criminal activities unless they had "probable cause" to believe a crime had been committed.
Ashcroft insisted the changes would not return the FBI to the days when it spied on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other dissidents.
In the main, the attorney general said, the guidelines are to be used "for the purpose of preventing and detecting terrorism activities."
They also do not permit the FBI to collect files on innocent citizens, he added, and field agents still must get FBI headquarters permission before applying for search warrants.
"In many cases, the (old) FBI guidelines had prevented FBI agents from taking the initiative" when going after terrorists, Ashcroft said.
Civil libertarians warned the decision to do away longstanding restrictions would lead to government abuses.
Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington office, said the new guidelines rewarded analytical failure with new powers and was a threat to civil liberties.
"The government is rewarding failure," said Murphy. "When the government fails -- as it increasingly appears to have done before Sept. 11 -- the Bush administration's response is to give itself new powers rather than seriously investigating why the failures occurred."
Jason Erb, governmental affairs director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations urged the Bush administration to not respond to past intelligence failures by adopting a "round up the usual suspects" approach to counter-terrorism.
"We cannot win the war on terrorism by turning the clock back to the days when the FBI infiltrated groups and harassed individuals engaged in Constitutionally-protected political dissent," Erb said in a statement. "Threatening the private practice of religion constitutes a war on freedom, not a war on terror."
One of the main changes in the new guidelines allows special agents in charge at FBI field offices to approve and engage in "terrorism enterprise investigations."
Under the old guidelines, such enterprise investigations -- begun on an agent's initiative -- had to be approved by the FBI director or an assistant director at headquarters.
The new guidelines also allow special agents in charge, or SACs, to authorize preliminary inquiries for up to a year. Preliminary inquiries are generally non-intrusive collections of facts to see if there is enough evidence to conduct a full-fledged investigation.
The old guidelines let SACs authorize 90-day preliminary inquiries, which could be extended in 30-day chunks with permission from FBI headquarters.
Significantly, the new guidelines let FBI agents use databases compiled by marketing research companies, material that is generally not available to the public, even if the use is not tied to a particular investigation.
FBI specialists will also be allowed to use counter-terrorism computer systems and collect and compile data from any public source, as long as agents can expressly justify the collection for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.
In addition, the new guidelines allow FBI agents to investigate terrorism suspects connected to religious or political groups with the same investigative techniques they would use on any other suspect.
"It is one thing to allow FBI agents the reasonable ability to surf the Internet for criminal activity or do research on issues not related to specific cases, and quite another to have agents entering mosques claiming to be Muslims or people of other faiths seeking spiritual guidance," Erb said.
The guidelines stress, however, that to conduct such an investigation there must be evidence of a crime, and that such investigations cannot be used to suppress constitutionally protected activity.
Earlier, President Bush said the new guidelines would not endanger the constitution.
"We intend to honor our Constitution and respect the freedoms that we hold so dear," he said. "We want to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent a further attack -- to protect America."