Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates from Prepared Remarks)
May 30, 2002
In its 94-year history, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been many things -- the defender of the nation from organized crime, the guardian of our security from international espionage, and the tireless protector of civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans.
On September 11, a stunned nation turned once again to the brave men and women of the FBI, and they, once again, answered the call. I spent the hours, days, and most of the first weeks after the attack in the FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center with Director Mueller. Even today, eight months later, it is difficult to convey the professionalism, dedication and quiet resolve I witnessed in those first, 24-hour days. I saw men and women work themselves beyond fatigue to prevent new terrorist attacks. I witnessed individuals put aside their personal lives, personal agendas and personal safety to answer our nation's call.
From the first moments we spent together, launching the largest investigation in history, we understood that the mission of American justice and law enforcement had changed. That day, in those early hours, the prevention of terrorist acts became the central goal of the law enforcement and national security mission of the FBI. And from that time forward, we in the leadership of the FBI and the Department of Justice began a concerted effort to free the field agents - the brave men and women on the front lines - from the bureaucratic, organizational, and operational restrictions and structures that hindered them from doing their jobs effectively.
As we have heard recently, FBI men and women 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 acts unless the FBI learns of possible criminal activity from external sources.
Under the current guidelines, FBI investigators cannot surf the web the way you or I can. Nor can they 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 can 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.
That is why the Attorney General's guidelines and procedures relating to criminal investigations and national security were high on the list of action items for reform. Beginning in the 1970s, guidelines have been developed to inform agents of the circumstances under which investigations may be opened, the permissible scope of these investigations, the techniques that may be used, and the objectives that should be pursued. These guidelines provide limitations and guidance over and above all requirements and safeguards imposed by the Constitution and beyond the legal framework established by federal statutes enacted by Congress. Promulgated for different purposes and revised at various times, the guidelines currently cover FBI investigations, undercover operations, the use of confidential informants, and consensual monitoring of verbal communications.
The guidelines defining the general rules for FBI investigations, for example, were first issued over 20 years ago. They derive from a period in which Soviet communism was the greatest threat to the United States, in which the Internet did not exist, and in which concerns over terrorist threats to the homeland related mainly to domestic hate groups.
Shortly after September 11, I took two steps to free FBI field agents to prevent additional terrorist attacks. First, I authorized the FBI to waive the guidelines, with headquarters approval, in extraordinary cases to prevent and investigate terrorism. That authority has been used, but I am disappointed that it was not used more widely. This experience over the past few months reinforces my belief that greater authority to investigate more vigorously needs to be given directly to FBI field agents.
Second, I directed a top-to-bottom review of the guidelines to ensure that they provide front-line field agents with the legal authority they need to protect the American people from future terrorist attacks. That comprehensive review showed that the guidelines mistakenly combined timeless objectives - the enforcement of the law and respect for civil rights and liberties - with outdated means.
Today, I am announcing comprehensive revisions to the Department's investigative guidelines. As revised, the guidelines reflect four overriding principles.
First, the war against terrorism is the central mission and highest priority of the FBI. This principle is stated explicitly in the revised guidelines, and it is facilitated and reinforced through many specific reforms. The guidelines emphasize that the FBI must not be deprived of using all lawful authorized methods in investigations, consistent with the Constitution and statutory authority, to pursue and prevent terrorist actions.
Second, terrorism prevention is the key objective under the revised guidelines. Our philosophy today is not to wait and sift through the rubble following a terrorist attack. Rather, the FBI must intervene early and investigate aggressively where information exists suggesting the possibility of terrorism, so as to prevent acts of terrorism. The new guidelines advance this strategy of prevention by strengthening investigative authority at the early stage of preliminary inquiries. Also, even absent specific investigative predicates, FBI agents under the new guidelines are empowered to scour public sources for information on future terrorist threats.
Third, unnecessary procedural red tape must not interfere with the effective detection, investigation, and prevention of terrorist activities. To this end, the revised guidelines allow Special Agents in Charge of FBI field offices to approve and renew terrorism enterprise investigations, rather than having to seek and wait for approval from headquarters. I believe this responds to a number of concerns we have heard from our field agents. The guidelines expand the scope of those investigations to the full range of terrorist activities under the USA Patriot Act. These major changes will free field agents to counter potential terrorist threats swiftly and vigorously without waiting for headquarters to act.
Fourth, the FBI must draw proactively on all lawful sources of information to identify terrorist threats and activities. It cannot meet its paramount responsibility to prevent acts of terrorism if FBI agents are required, as they were in the past, to blind themselves to information that everyone else is free to see. Under the revised guidelines, the FBI can identify and track foreign terrorists by combining its investigative results with information obtained from other lawful sources, such as foreign intelligence and commercial data services. To detect and prevent terrorist activities, the FBI under the revised guidelines will also be able to enter and observe public places and forums just as any member of the public might.
Let me pause here for a moment. What I am saying is this: FBI field agents have been inhibited from attending public events, open to any other citizen - not because they are barred by the U.S. Constitution, or barred any federal law enacted by Congress, but because of the lack of clear authority under administrative guidelines issued decades ago. Today, I am clarifying that, for the specific purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, FBI field agents may enter public places and attend events open to other citizens, unless they are barred from attending by the Constitution or federal law.
Our new guideline reads, "For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the FBI is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public, on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally."
I believe in the principle of community policing, in which an active, visible law enforcement presence is linked to communities and neighborhoods. Local police can enter public places and attend public events in their communities, and they detect and prevent crime by doing so. To protect our communities from terrorism, the FBI must be free to do the same.
The revised guidelines will take effect immediately and will be incorporated into the training of FBI agents. These guidelines will also be a resource to inform the American public and demonstrate that we seek to protect life and liberty from terrorism and other criminal violence with a scrupulous respect for civil rights and personal freedoms. The guidelines are available on the internet at http://www.usdoj.gov/olp/index.html#agguide
The campaign against terrorism is a campaign to affirm the values of freedom and human dignity that transcend national boundaries, racial classifications, and religious differences. Called to the service of our nation, we are called to the defense of liberty for all men and women. On behalf of the Department of Justice and the people of this great nation, I thank Director Mueller and the FBI for their hard work to defend freedom. And I thank Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, and Assistant Attorneys General Michael Chertoff and Viet Dinh for their efforts in revising the guidelines to honor these values.
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