Attorney General John Ashcroft on Thursday freed the FBI to visit Internet sites, libraries, churches and political organizations as part of an effort to give the beleaguered agency new tools to pre-empt terrorist strikes.
``Our philosophy today is not to wait and sift through the rubble following a terrorist attack,'' Ashcroft told a news conference.
But critics said the new guidelines were just another erosion by the Bush administration of Americans' constitutional freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism.
``The administration's continued defiance of constitutional safeguards seems to have no end in sight,'' complained Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
``It only serves the purpose of heightening the scare in the society and the paranoia against Muslims,'' said Shaker Elsayed, secretary general of the Muslim American Society.
The FBI is under scrutiny in Congress for possibly missing hints about threats of suicide hijackings prior to Sept. 11. Partly in response to such criticism, FBI Director Robert Mueller has announced a broad reorganization of the agency designed for a new proactive approach to terrorists, spies and computer hackers.
The guidelines announced by Ashcroft represent a loosening of restrictions laid down in the 1970s. They will allow FBI agents to enter any public place for the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities.
In the realm of computers and the Internet, the revisions authorize the FBI to use commercial data mining services and to engage in online research, even when it isn't linked to an individual criminal investigation.
The revised guidelines will push the decision-making for an array of investigative steps away from FBI headquarters in Washington and down to individual offices around the country. The special agents in charge of each office will hold the keys to setting investigative steps in motion.
President Bush and Ashcroft insisted that the revisions weren't a threat to civil liberties.
Under present guidelines, Ashcroft said, agents ``cannot surf the Web, the way you and I can,'' and cannot simply walk into public events to observe people and activities.
Ashcroft said nothing in the guidelines would permit the FBI to routinely build files on people or organizations.
Critics disputed that.
``Apparently, Attorney General Ashcroft wants to get the FBI back in the business of spying on religious and political organizations,'' said Margaret Ratner, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. ``That alone would be unconstitutional, but history suggests the FBI won't stop at passive information gathering.''
``They are using the terrorism crisis as a cover for a wide range of changes, some of which have nothing to do with terrorism,'' said James X. Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Dempsey predicted that one new tool, the power to mine commercial data, will be used in drug and child pornography and stock fraud and gambling and ``every other type of investigation the FBI does.''
Nicholas Graham, a spokesman for America Online, said, ``If law enforcement asks for our cooperation, we absolutely do cooperate with them in a criminal investigation. We have always been careful to strike a careful, reasonable and appropriate balance between protecting our members' privacy and their safety while working with law enforcement.''
Stringent guidelines on FBI activities were put in place in the 1970s because of the FBI's domestic surveillance of prominent Americans, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose private life was subjected to electronic surveillance.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the lifting of restrictions could renew abuses of the past.
King's ``persecution by law enforcement is a necessary reminder of the potential abuse when a government with too long a leash seeks to silence voices of dissent,'' ACLU legislative counsel Marvin Johnson said.
Others, however, were much less critical of the revisions.
``The impact is far less significant and far less subject to abuse than what was enacted into law'' by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, said attorney Raymond J. Gustini, who chairs a subcommittee of the American Bar Association on electronic privacy and co-chairs an ABA task force on financial privacy.
The new anti-terrorism law put in place new legal authority in such areas as money-laundering, e-mail monitoring, detention policies and domestic surveillance by the CIA.
``The FBI really needs this right now,'' Gustini said. ``They're under a microscope now more than any other player other than the president. It's very important for the FBI to deliver.''