WASHINGTON - Attorney General Michael Mukasey confirmed plans Wednesday to loosen post-Watergate restrictions on the FBI's national security and criminal investigations, saying the changes were necessary to improve its ability to detect terrorists.
Mukasey said he expected criticism of the new rules because "they expressly authorize the FBI to engage in intelligence collection inside the United States." He said, however, that the criticism would be misplaced because the FBI has long had authority to do so.
Mukasey said the new rules "remove unnecessary barriers" to cooperation between law enforcement agencies and "eliminate the artificial distinctions" in the way agents conduct surveillance in criminal and national security investigations.
Noting one area that needs to change, he said agents currently can rely on informants to gather information in ordinary criminal investigations but are more limited in national security cases.
In addition, agents assigned to national security investigations will be given more latitude to conduct surveillance based on a tip. Also, agents will be permitted to search more databases than allowed previously in criminal cases.
Mukasey said he planned to consult with Congress before releasing the new rules. Nonetheless, Mukasey provided enough detail Wednesday to alarm civil libertarians.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said if Mukasey moves ahead with the new rules, he'll be weakening restrictions put in place after the Watergate scandal to rein in the FBI's domestic Counter Intelligence Program. In that program, the FBI spied on U.S. political leaders and organizations deemed to be subversive throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s.