To the Editor :
In “Government Will Ease Limits on Domestic Spying by F.B.I” (front page, May 30), you refer to Cointelpro as a surveillance program that “monitored” various groups. It did much more.
By its own terms, Cointelpro was designed to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” political and activist groups. Under its auspices, the F.B.I. and local authorities went far beyond passive surveillance; they harassed a vast number of protest groups, infiltrated them with provocateurs, and devised and carried out disinformation campaigns.
Surveillance of political and religious groups is bad enough, and it may well lead to a re-emergence of Cointelpro.
MICHAEL RATNER and MARGARET RATNER KUNSTLER, New York, May 30, 2002
The writers are president and cooperating attorney, respectively, Center for Constitutional Rights.
Text of Article
TRACES OF TERROR: SURVEILLANCE; Government Will Ease Limits On Domestic Spying by F.B.I.
By DON VAN NATTA JR.MAY 30, 2002
As part of a sweeping effort to transform the F.B.I. into a domestic terrorism prevention agency, Attorney General John Ashcroft has decided to relax restrictions on the bureau’s ability to conduct domestic spying in counterterrorism operations, senior government officials said today.
Mr. Ashcroft and Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, plan to announce on Thursday a broad loosening of the guidelines that restrict the surveillance of religious and political organizations, the officials said. The guidelines were adopted after disclosures of domestic F.B.I. spying under the old Cointelpro program, and for 25 years they have been among the most fundamental limits on the bureau’s conduct.
The revision will shift the power to initiate counterterrorism inquiries from headquarters to the special agents in charge of the 56 field offices, the officials said.
”We are turning the ship 180 degrees from prosecution of crimes as our main focus to the prevention of terrorist acts,” a senior Justice Department official said tonight. ”We want to make sure that we do everything possible to stop the terrorists before they can kill innocent Americans, everything within the bounds of the Constitution and federal law.”
Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the new guidelines, saying they represent another step by the Bush administration to roll back civil-liberties protections in the name of improving counterterrorism measures.
”These new guidelines say to the American people that you no longer have to be doing something wrong in order to get that F.B.I. knock at your door,” Laura W. Murphy, director of the national office of the A.C.L.U., said. ”The government is rewarding failure. It seems when the F.B.I. fails, the response by the Bush administration is to give the bureau new powers, as opposed to seriously look at why the intelligence and law enforcement failures occurred.”
Under the old guidelines, agents needed to show that they had probable cause or information from an informer that crimes were being committed to begin counterterrorism investigations. Under the new guidelines, agents will be free to search for leads or clues to terrorist activities in public databases or on the Internet.
Under the old guidelines, surfing the Internet for the sole purpose of developing leads was prohibited.
Among other changes, the new guidelines let agents search Web sites and online chat rooms for evidence of terrorists’ planning or other criminal activities, the officials said.
The bureau will also use commercial ”data-mining services” from companies that collect, organize and analyze marketing and demographic information from the Internet to help develop leads on potential crimes like threats to the security of computer networks. Businesses routinely use the information, but the bureau has been constrained from using those services.
The guidelines were imposed in the 1970’s after the disclosures about Cointelpro, a widespread domestic surveillance program that monitored antiwar militants, the Ku Klux Klan and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., among others, while J. Edgar Hoover was bureau director.
Beyond the reports of the spying, a political firestorm arose over what many critics regarded as the abuse of power. The surveillance guidelines have since then defined the operational conduct of the bureau in inquiries of domestic and overseas groups that operate in the United States.
Since Sept. 11, the guidelines have been criticized by many law enforcement officials as an outmoded counterterrorism tool that hampered efforts.
A senior agent in the Minneapolis office, Coleen Rowley, complained on May 21 in a letter to Mr. Mueller that officials at headquarters had repeatedly held back agents in the field office who sought to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui aggressively in the four weeks before Sept. 11.
Senior officials said today that Mr. Ashcroft’s new guidelines addressed some of Ms. Rowley’s complaints. Ms. Rowley, general counsel in the Minneapolis office, also complained that agents there had no idea that an agent in Phoenix wrote in a memorandum to headquarters in July that Arab men, possibly connected to Osama bin Laden, had trained at a flight school in Arizona.
Under the new guidelines, field offices will no longer have to await approval for intelligence investigations from headquarters. Headquarters would often take weeks or even months before deciding whether an inquiry was warranted.
Instead, the field offices could begin counterterrorism inquiries themselves. Inquiries can last from 180 days to one year before being reviewed by senior officials.
”Agent Rowley’s concerns are thoroughly addressed in the F.B.I. reorganization and the attorney general’s guidelines,” a senior official said tonight. ”We are devolving power to begin and conduct investigations to the field offices and freeing their hands to do everything possible within the bounds of the Constitution and federal law to protect us from terrorists.”
Under the current guidelines, the bureau cannot send undercover agents to investigate groups that gather at places like mosques or churches unless investigators first find probable cause or evidence that leads them to believe that someone in the group may have broken the law. Such full investigations cannot proceed without the attorney general’s consent.
Many investigators have complained since Sept. 11 that Islamic militants have sometimes met at mosques, apparently knowing that religious institutions are usually off limits to F.B.I. surveillance squads.
A lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, Gregory T. Nojeim, predicted that the new guidelines would cause a flood of new information that the bureau will have trouble analyzing.
”The problem with the 9/11 investigation was a failure to analyze and act on relevant information,” Mr. Nojeim said. ”And their solution is to gather exponentially more information that they have no possible way to properly analyze.”
A senior official at the Justice Department dismissed that criticism.
”Under the new rules,” the official said, ”we allow the field to conduct the investigations and we will give headquarters the ability to analyze the information. No longer will there be disparate pieces of information floating around in isolation in different parts of the country. Now you will have a much greater ability to connect those dots.”