The Justice Department finalized on Friday an overhaul of rules that will give the F.B.I. freer rein to begin investigations into the possibility of terrorism, even without evidence of wrongdoing. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey and Robert S. Mueller III, director of the F.B.I., said the new guidelines, which will take effect Dec. 1, “provide the F.B.I. with the authority and flexibility it needs to protect the nation from terrorist threats.”
[UPDATE: House Democrats call for the Bush administration to hold off on implementing the new rules, leaving them as recommendations of guidelines for the next administration]
Earlier drafts of the guidelines met with strong criticism from civil liberties groups concerned about the prospect for abuse. This led the Justice Department in its final report to include what it called significant new restrictions on the tactics that agents can use in handling large-scale demonstrations and civil disturbances that could require federal intervention. Instead of broad approval to use any technique considered lawful in such demonstrations and disturbances, the final guidelines spell out the allowed tactics and limit such investigations to 30 days.
Among the most controversial aspects of the guidelines is a section that allows F.B.I. agents to open so-called threat assessments to look into general patterns or suspicions about terrorist activity without any specific evidence of wrongdoing. Justice Department officials say this section of the guidelines, which remains virtually unchanged from earlier drafts, will allow agents to be more aggressive in identifying possible terrorist threats.