The Federal Bureau of Investigation is expanding its 14,000 agents ability to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams on people whom they deem persons of interest. The Bureau will soon release a new edition of its manual, the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. 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.
Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who is now a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, says that it is 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,” Mr. German said. There have been complaints about the bureau’s surveillance of domestic political advocacy groups and mosques and an inspector general found in 2007 that the F.B.I. had frequently misused “national security letters,” which allow agents to obtain information like phone records without a court order.
Valerie E. Caproni, the F.B.I. general counsel, said the bureau fixed the problems with the national security letters. “Every one of these has been carefully looked at and considered against the backdrop of why do 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 changes apply to the lowest category of investigations, called an “assessment.” Assessments allow agents to look into people and organizations “proactively” and without evidence of criminal or terrorist activity. Restrictions on administering lie-detector tests and searching people’s trash will be relaxed and the new manual will also remove a limitation on the use of surveillance squads, which are trained to surreptitiously follow targets.
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