FBI gets new Web searching powers

The U.S. Department of Justice loosened restrictions on domestic spying yesterday, giving FBI agents broad new authorities to search the Web and monitor public arenas in an effort to fight terrorism.

The new guidelines, announced by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, allow agents to surf the Web and access other publicly available information in search for terrorist plot clues.

Previously, agents were hampered from such activities unless they were seeking information directly linked to a current investigation.

Under the guidelines being replaced, "FBI investigators cannot surf the Web the way you or I can. Nor can they simply walk into a public event at a public place to observe ongoing activities," Ashcroft said in announcing the changes.

The restrictions significantly crippled FBI agents' ability to fight terrorism and gave a "competitive advantage" to terrorists, Ashcroft said.

The new guidelines will take effect immediately and don't require congressional approval, Ashcroft said.

The changes are just the latest step in the government's effort to revamp the FBI so that it can more effectively battle terrorist threats. On Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced a new set of priorities for the agency, including improving its technological savvy (see story).

The FBI's overhaul is in part due to criticism that it failed to anticipate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Not everyone is pleased with the changes the agency is undergoing, however, as some fear that civil liberties could be endangered by agents' new, sweeping powers.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have spoken out against the reforms, saying they threaten core civil liberties protected under the Constitution.

"The government is rewarding failure," Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington national office said in a statement, referring to the FBI's failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

The FBI, however, argues that for the agency to prevent further attacks, agents need to be able to access and use the same information that's available to the public.

"[The FBI] cannot meet its paramount responsibility to prevent acts of terrorism if FBI agents are required, as they were in the past, to blind themselves to information that everyone else is free to see," Ashcroft said.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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