WASHINGTON -- The FBI has implemented new ground rules that fundamentally alter the way investigators handle counterterrorism cases, allowing criminal and intelligence agents to work side by side and giving both broad access to the tools of intelligence gathering for the first time in decades.
The result is that the FBI, unhindered by many of the restrictions of the past, will conduct many more searches and wiretaps that are subject to oversight by a secret intelligence court, rather than regular criminal courts, officials said. Civil liberties groups and defense lawyers predict that more innocent people will be the targets of clandestine surveillance.
The new strategy -- launched in early summer and finalized in a classified directive issued to FBI field offices in October -- goes further than has been publicly discussed by FBI officials in the past and marks the final step in tearing down the legal wall that had separated criminal and intelligence probes since the spying scandals of the 1970s, authorities said.
Senior FBI officials said the changes have already helped the bureau disrupt plans for at least four terrorist attacks overseas and uncover a sleeper cell in the United States, though they declined to provide details on those cases. The approach also has resulted in a notable surge in the number of counterterrorism investigations, a statistic that is classified but currently stands at more than 1,000 cases, officials said.
"With 9/11 as the catalyst for this, what we've done is fundamentally change the approach we take to every counterterrorism case," the FBI's terrorism chief, John Pistole, said in an interview.
To civil libertarians and many defense lawyers, the changes pose a threat to the privacy and due-process rights of civilians because they essentially eliminate, rather than merely blur, the traditional boundaries separating criminal and intelligence investigations. As a result, these critics say, many more searches and seizures will be conducted in secret.
"By eliminating any distinction between criminal and intelligence classifications, it reduces the respect for the ordinary constitutional protections that people have," said Joshua Dratel, a New York lawyer who has filed legal briefs opposing government antiterrorism policies. "It will result in a funneling of all cases into an intelligence mode. It's an end run around the Fourth Amendment," which protects citizens from unreasonable searches, he said.
Under previous FBI protocols, terrorism probes could be opened along two separate tracks, one for the purposes of developing a criminal case and one for intelligence gathering. Each was labeled with separate classification numbers, which govern the way cases are tracked and budgeted within the FBI. Sharing between the two categories was sharply limited. Under the new guidelines, all counterterrorism cases are opened under the same classification number, 315, and are handled from the outset like an intelligence or espionage investigation, officials said. The structure allows investigators to more easily use secret warrants and other methods not available in traditional criminal probes, sources said.