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FBI Lauds Loosening of Surveillance Regulations

Security: Agents say old rules hamstrung them. Other say revisions have gone too far, too fast.

September 03, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before the world knew Buford Furrow for his violent rampage at an L.A. Jewish community center, the avowed white supremacist was familiar to the FBI.

A follower of the racist group Aryan Nations, Furrow had been among those watched for years by FBI agents who monitor the country's home-grown terrorists.

But when Furrow parted ways with Aryan Nations in 1998, agents no longer had permission to trail him. "Because we were watching the group and not an individual, we were not allowed to follow him," recalled one law enforcement official.

Whether keeping tabs on Furrow could have prevented his 1999 attack in Los Angeles is anyone's guess. But current and former agents insist the restriction illustrates how federal regulations in place before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon hamstrung the FBI's anti-terrorism efforts for years.

"I'm not saying--and I don't think anybody in the FBI is saying--that if we had this law or this guideline changed we would have been able to prevent Sept. 11," said Bill Gore, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Diego office. "But there were certain restrictions that needed revisiting."

Over the last four decades, the regulations guiding the conduct of FBI counter-terrorism agents have whipsawed back and forth, from virtually nonexistent under former Director J. Edgar Hoover to highly strict in the 1960s.

Restrictions were eased again after the terrorist attacks last year. First the USA Patriot Act, approved soon after the attacks, expanded the government's authority to monitor private conversations and e-mail and eased the requirements for deporting noncitizens suspected of endangering national security. Then regulations announced in May, by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft allowed agents to search the Internet for terrorist material, attend any event open to the public, and extend preliminary investigations for as long as a year without approval from headquarters in Washington.

But recently, questions have been raised about whether the new post-Sept. 11 guidelines went too far, too fast. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, concerned about new efforts to broaden the bureau's spying abilities, recently ordered Ashcroft to cut back on search warrants and wiretaps. The Justice Department has appealed the decision.

James X. Dempsey, deputy director for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based civil liberties group, believes that the guidelines in place before Sept. 11 gave FBI agents plenty of latitude to investigate suspected terrorists.

"What they were required to do is focus their investigations on groups or individuals suspected of being involved in terrorism," he said.

However, agents complained for years that they faced more restrictions pursuing international terrorists than they did on teenage street gang members.

They say rules adopted after Sept. 11 have greatly streamlined their efforts.

Under the old rules, for example, FBI agents asking the FISA court for permission to use surveillance were required to identify suspected terrorists as agents of a specific foreign power. But that often proved impossible, either because a suspect could not be linked to a specific hostile country or because the ability to make that connection hinged on court-ordered surveillance.

Some FBI agents say those problems led to the bureau not seeking a warrant in the summer of 2001 against suspected "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui, who was jailed in Minneapolis on an immigration violation.

"The intelligence guidelines were such that we were able to do some basic checks and that was about it," said Nancy Savage, who heads the FBI Agents Assn.

"But when we were just trying to find out about someone who maybe hadn't committed an act but we had reasonable belief was affiliated with terrorist groups, we were really hamstrung."

Plenty of attention has been paid since Sept. 11 to the college and university records of potential terrorists or their associates, but the FBI was restricted from examining those records until recently.

To obtain the student records of someone they suspected of being involved in espionage, authorities were required to persuade a court that there was justification to bypass the federal statute.

But to do that could require them to disclose sources or present classified information in a federal court not equipped to handle top secret evidence.

"There was no way to protect that classified information" from being released, Gore said.

Authorities now have greater access to the FISA court to make a case for obtaining student records.

Under the old Justice Department guidelines, FBI agents also faced the time-consuming prospect of vetting anti-terrorism investigations through headquarters.

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