RAY SUAREZ: The announcement to ease restrictions on domestic spying came this afternoon, at a press conference at the Justice Department. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the new rules part of the effort to fight terrorism, an effort that has been criticized inside and outside the FBI
JOHN ASHCROFT: As we have heard recently, men and women of the FBI In the field are frustrated because many of our own internal restrictions have hampered our ability to fight terrorism. The current investigative guidelines have contributed to that frustration. In many instances, the guidelines bar FBI field agents from taking the initiative to detect and prevent future terrorist attacks, or acts, unless the FBI learns of possible criminal activity from external sources.
Under the current guidelines, FBI investigators cannot, for example, surf the Web in the same way that you and I can to look for information, nor can FBI investigators simply walk into a public event or a public place to observe ongoing activities. They have no clear authority to use commercial data services that any business in America is authorized to use. These restrictions are a competitive advantage for terrorists, who skillfully utilize sophisticated techniques and modern computer systems to compile information for targeting and attacking innocent Americans.
RAY SUAREZ: To address those problems, Ashcroft laid out new guidelines: Agents can monitor public activities, like religious events, or political rallies, without first demonstrating they are following a specific lead or conducting an investigation. They can search the Internet, including Web sites and chat rooms for possible terrorist activity. They'll also be able to use other public databases, such as those in libraries, to get information.
The agency will have access to marketing and demographic information to develop leads on potential crimes. And for the first time, field office directors will be allowed to launch and renew terrorism investigations without clearance from FBI headquarters. Ashcroft was asked if the new spying rules could violate civil liberties.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, let me make clear what we have done. And that's the reason I read the specific text. The specific text indicated that this is an activity authorized in the guidelines for purposes of preventing terrorism, and so that it's not to be abused for other purposes.
Additionally, the guidelines contain very clear instruction about what kind of records can be kept. The abuses that once have been alleged about the FBI decades ago, about the keeping of files or records about prominent figures in this country, would not be allowed either under the guidelines or under the statutes regarding privacy, which are incorporated in the guidelines.
RAY SUAREZ: Earlier today, President Bush said he backed the changes, and said they would not infringe on important freedoms.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We intend to honor our Constitution and respect the freedoms that we hold so dear. And secondly, we want to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent a further attack; to protect America. The FBI needed to change. It was an organization full of fine people that loved America, but they... the organization didn't meet the times.
And so, I appreciate Director Mueller's reform measures. This is a man who came on to the FBI not many days before the September the 11 attack, and he's now reforming this important agency, all aimed at preventing a further attack. Our most important job is to protect America.
RAY SUAREZ: The revised FBI guidelines take effect immediately.