The FBI has fundamentally changed the way it handles 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 Washington Post reports.
The result is that the FBI will conduct many more searches and wiretaps subject to oversight by a secret intelligence court rather than regular criminal courts. Civil liberties groups predict that more innocent people will be the targets of clandestine surveillance.
The new strategy goes further than has been publicly discussed and marks the final step in tearing down the wall that had separated criminal and intelligence investigations since the spying scandals of the 1970s. FBI officials said the changes have helped the bureau disrupt plans for at least four terrorist attacks overseas and uncover a terrorist sleeper cell in the United States; they declined to provide details. 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.
“With 9/11 as the catalyst for this, what we’ve done is fundamentally change the approach we take to every counterterrorism case,” FBI terrorism chief John S. Pistole told the Post. “This is a sea change for the FBI.”
To critics, the changes pose a threat to the privacy and due-process rights of civilians because they eliminate traditional boundaries separating criminal and intelligence probes. “By eliminating any distinction between criminal and intelligence classifications, it reduces the respect for the ordinary constitutional protections that people have,” said Joshua L. Dratel, a New York lawyer who has filed briefs opposing government anti-terrorism 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.
Under new rules, all counterterrorism cases are opened under the same classification number, 315, and are handled from the outset like an intelligence or espionage investigation. The structure allows investigators to use secret warrants and other methods that are overseen by the surveillance court more easily. All terrorism cases will also be formally run by the counterterrorism division at FBI headquarters in Washington, rather than by field offices.