WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft announced an easing of FBI rules yesterday to allow federal agents to fight terrorism by keeping tabs on mosques, libraries and rallies, and by perusing the Internet, even without evidence of criminal behavior.
The move, which drew sharp criticism from civil libertarians, will not amount to random spying on Americans, Ashcroft said, and does not involve electronic surveillance. Rather, he said, the changes will allow FBI agents, for the first time since the 1970s, to engage in activities that ordinary Americans have been free to do.
Until now, the bureau's agents had to show that their need to enter a religious establishment or to attend a political rally was part of an investigation into a specific crime.
Ashcroft said the old restrictions on bureau agents had given terrorists a "competitive advantage." He said the changes were necessary, too, to help rid the bureau of red tape that has hindered agents from conducting investigations that could prevent terrorism.
"These major changes will free field agents to pursue terrorists vigorously without waiting for headquarters to act," he said. "The FBI must intervene early and investigate aggressively where information exists suggesting the possibility of terrorism, so as to prevent acts of terrorism."
President Bush said he welcomed the lifting of the restrictions on FBI activities.
"The FBI needed to change," he said. "It was an organization full of fine people who loved America, but the organization didn't meet the times."
Bush added: "We intend to honor our Constitution and respect the freedoms that we hold so dear."
The changes are the first significant reform of the restrictions on FBI agents since they were implemented nearly 30 years ago. The bureau established the guidelines in the 1970s after disturbing revelations that the FBI had been spying on war protesters and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During its surveillance of people, the bureau kept numerous files on figures they deemed of interest, tapped their phones, photographed them at rallies and categorized some of them as anti-American.
Ashcroft said agents will be permitted to attend such events or to surf the Web if such activity is deemed to be of value in preventing terrorist activity.
A senior official at the Justice Department said the bureau will not keep files of information on people it observes in public places unless the person is suspected of criminal behavior. But Ashcroft said the bureau would be allowed to accumulate some general files, so long as they do not focus on specific individuals.
"The abuses that have been alleged about the FBI decades ago would not be allowed," the attorney general said.
But civil libertarians said they feared that the FBI's zeal for counterterrorism would eventually outweigh the rights of innocent people.
"This is part of the government's 'trust us' philosophy," said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union. "'We're going to collect all this information on you, but trust us, we won't use it.' But that hasn't happened in the past.
"This will have a chilling effect on political activity," Johnson said. "It chills freedom of association. The government is going to be checking you out to see what you are doing. And while it may sound benign, it tremendously expands the FBI's power to spy on people even without any sign that they have done something wrong."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said: "Any government effort to institutionalize the same powers that allowed the FBI to wrongfully spy on the activities of civil rights organizations and disclose information on the private affairs of Martin Luther King Jr. would constitute an embarrassing step backward for civil liberties in this country."
But FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the changes would merely allow agents to conduct investigations by accessing basic public information. The new guidelines, Mueller said, will be "exceptionally helpful" to the bureau.
"Our reforms of the FBI will and must strengthen our ability to prevent future terrorist attacks," he said.
Under the old FBI rules, agents needed to show probable cause of criminal activity, or to be actively involved in a criminal investigation, to attend rallies, monitor Internet chat rooms or engage in many other open activities.
The changes come as part of a far-reaching reorganization of the bureau. The FBI has been under intense criticism for missing several warning signs that, if pieced together, Mueller has acknowledged, might have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.
The bureau is reorganizing its structure and hiring analysts to interpret information collected by field offices. Mueller has replaced 25 percent of the bureau's top officials and is revamping the agency's outdated computer systems.
In addition to allowing agents to monitor public places, yesterday's new guidelines will also give them access to commercial data services, such as the kind businesses use to check a consumer's credit rating or to track a person's purchases of books or groceries.
Justice Department officials said, though, that the bureau would still need a warrant to look into someone's financial affairs or personal spending habits when they are outside the scope of the information that data service companies provide.
The revised guidelines will shift much of the investigative decision-making to the field offices, which will be free to pursue leads without the permission of bureaucrats at FBI headquarters in Washington. The role of supervising the agents who monitor public places and the Internet will fall to the special agents in charge of the field offices.
Coleen Rowley, a veteran FBI agent and counsel in the Minneapolis office, highlighted the field offices' complaints two weeks ago, when she wrote a caustic memo to Mueller and members of Congress. She charged that senior FBI officials had repeatedly thwarted efforts by her office to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, who is thought to have been the would-be 20th hijacker for the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.
The field offices, Ashcroft said, "are frustrated because many of our internal restrictions have hampered" their efforts to move quickly on investigations.
He said the new guidelines would give them the flexibility they need to even "surf the Web the way you and I can."