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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

FBI power in terror cases grows

Beginning Monday, the FBI will get increased power to investigate suspected terrorists under revised administrative guidelines that some Muslim Americans and civil rights advocates in metro Detroit are concerned may target innocent people.

The new Justice Department guidelines will allow FBI agents, for the first time in terrorism-related cases, to use undercover sources to gather information in preliminary probes, interview people without identifying who they are and spy on suspects without first getting clear evidence of wrongdoing.

They're the most significant changes the Bush administration has made since 2003 to rules that govern security investigations in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

FBI officials say they need the changes because they are hamstrung by outdated rules that limit their ability to investigate people in national security cases.

FBI agents have met with Arab-American representatives in metro Detroit twice to assure them that the new guidelines won't target them, pointing out that the rules state they must be applied in a "reasonable manner that respects liberty and privacy."

But critics say the plan will allow for abuses by agents, including more racial and religious profiling and intrusive investigations into political and religious groups.

Those concerns are amplified in Michigan, a major center of Islam and home to the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States.

Some say they worry there will be more undercover agents and informants infiltrating mosques, attending events like Palestinian conferences, and snooping into the private lives of ordinary residents.

"There is anxiety the Middle Eastern community will be targeted," said Dearborn attorney Nabih Ayad, who often defends Arab Americans charged in national security cases. "There is always a danger in the implementation when you give such discretion in the hands of agents."

Those concerns may be revisited again sometime next year. Because the new guidelines were not created through legislation, President-elect Barack Obama's administration could decide to remove them. [Mark Godsey]

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