According to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on December 12, DHS, DOJ, and the Treasury Department are no longer coordinating with each other to develop a nationwide federal wireless communications service for use by first responders. The report, requested by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME), found the different departments are now working on individual interoperability projects rather than implementing the Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) program.
From the New York Times:
The Bush administration has informed Congress that it is bypassing a law intended to forbid political interference with reports to lawmakers by DHS. The August 2007 law requires the DHS chief privacy officer to report each year about Homeland Security activities that affect privacy, and requires that the reports be submitted directly to Congress “without any prior comment or amendment” by superiors at DHS or the White House.
But newly disclosed documents show that the Justice Department issued a legal opinion last January questioning the basis for that restriction, and that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff later advised Congress that the administration would not “apply this provision strictly” because it infringed on the President’s powers.
Several members of Congress reacted with outrage to the administration’s claim, which was detailed in a memorandum posted this week on the Web site of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.
House Democrats are calling on the Bush administration to hold off implementing new rules that broaden the FBI’s investigative authorities until a new administration can approve them next year.
[Update 10/12: The Justice Department, in a nod to concerns that Americans could be investigated in terrorism cases without evidence of wrongdoing, said Tuesday it will tweak still-tentative rules governing FBI national security cases before they are issued. See full article: DOJ tweaking terror probe rules]
“It is not appropriate for the current administration to make such sweeping changes to FBI procedures at this late date, only a month before the election,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said in a statement. He said they should be provided “as suggestions (for) the new administration to consider early next year.”
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.
The Justice Department, in a nod to concerns that Americans could be investigated in terrorism cases without evidence of wrongdoing, said Tuesday it will tweak still-tentative rules governing FBI national security cases before they are issued.
The Justice Department says the guidelines will merely streamline existing authorities used in criminal and national security investigations. But critics call them a broad expansion of FBI powers that could result in racial, ethnic or religious profiling without any evidence of a crime.
Not all of the planned changes were outlined during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, but Assistant Attorney General Elisebeth Cook said they would include limits on the length and kinds of investigative activities used in monitoring demonstrations and civil disorders.
The short hearing came as three Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee demanded “bare-minimum” civil rights protections for U.S. citizens and residents as the FBI expands its power to seek out potential terrorists.