WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is considering allowing the FBI to investigate Americans without any evidence of wrongdoing, relying instead on a terrorist profile that could single out Muslims, Arabs or other racial and ethnic groups.
Law enforcement officials say the proposed policy would help them do exactly what Congress demanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: Root out terrorists before they strike.
Although President Bush has disavowed targeting suspects based on race or ethnicity, the new rules would allow the FBI to consider those factors among a number of traits that could trigger a national security investigation.
Currently, FBI agents need specific reasons -- such as evidence or allegations that a law probably has been violated -- to investigate U.S. citizens and legal residents. The new policy, law enforcement officials told the Associated Press, would let agents open preliminary terrorism investigations after mining public records and intelligence to build a profile of traits that, taken together, were deemed suspicious.
Factors that could make someone the subject of an investigation include travel to regions of the world known for terrorist activity, access to weapons or military training and the person's race or ethnicity.
More than half a dozen senior FBI, Justice Department and other U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the new policy agreed to discuss it only on condition of anonymity either because they were not allowed to speak publicly or because the change is not final.
The change, which is expected later this summer, is part of an update of Justice Department policies known as the Attorney General Guidelines. They are being overhauled amid the FBI's transition from a traditional crime-fighting agency to one whose top mission is to protect America from terrorist attacks.
"We don't know what we don't know. And the object is to cut down on that," said one FBI official who defended the proposed policy. .
If adopted, the guidelines would take effect in the final months of an administration that has been dogged by criticism that its counter-terrorism programs trample privacy rights and civil liberties.
Critics say the presumption of innocence would be lost. The FBI could begin investigations "by assuming that everyone's a suspect, and then you weed out the innocent," said Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the guidelines governing when to open a national security investigation would not give the FBI any more authority than it already had. He declined to give further comment, but he and two other senior Justice officials did not contradict the changes as described by others familiar with the guidelines.
The guidelines do not require congressional approval.
In the past, Bush has condemned racial profiling as "wrong in America." And, in a December 2001 interview, he had harsh words for an airline that refused to let one of his Secret Service agents board a commercial flight. The agent was Arab American.
"If he was treated that way because of his ethnicity, that will make me madder than heck," Bush said.