Congress worries about civil liberties protections with new FBI reorganization

Friday, June 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawmakers cautioned FBI Director Robert Mueller on Friday against waging a war on terrorism that is so aggressive it weakens the rights of Americans.

The comments came as Mueller described to a House subcommittee the steps the FBI is taking to reorganize itself to better fight terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. The FBI's focus on counterterrorism is drawing hundreds of field agents from drug and other criminal investigations, and Mueller cited a system of training and inspectors aimed at preventing abuses.

``Agents understand the consequences of going beyond the Constitution,'' Mueller told the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Justice Department and FBI.

Meantime, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and a handful of other labor leaders back the push for a new department, setting aside for now concerns raised by public employees' unions.

After meeting with domestic security chief Tom Ridge at the White House, the leaders said they supported the broad outlines of Bush's plans and would monitor how the concerns of public employees are handled. And Hoffa promised that truckers will be on the front lines of domestic defense.

``We can be the eyes and ears out there, especially on CB (radios),'' Hoffa told reporters. ``It's amazing what kind of information they can come up with.''

Hoffa said it's too early to determine with unionized workers would be hurt by the plan. ``We'll just wait and see what happens,'' he told reporters.

Frank Hanley of the International Union of Operating Engineers said his union had given Bush's plan its unqualified support.

While some members of Congress generally praised Mueller and his agency for their response to the attacks, they worried that constitutional protections might be compromised in the drive to prevent a new wave of terrorist acts.

``In our quest to create a better, faster, more agile FBI, we have to be careful not to trample on the rights granted to every American under the Constitution,'' said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the subcommittee.

``I'm concerned that in the rush to catch the bad guys, we will hurt the good guys,'' echoed Rep. Jose Serrano of New York, the panel's top Democrat.

Immediately after Sept. 11, the FBI assigned more than 6,000 agents to counterterrorism _ six times the number before the attacks. ``That has leveled off to 2,000 now,'' Mueller said.

Mueller sought to reassure that the FBI and CIA will work together effectively on intelligence issues _ a subject that has previously fallen on skeptical ears in Congress.

Without unfettered access to raw intelligence data _ tape recordings, communications intercepts, surveillance photos _ many lawmakers have been saying that the new agency will not have all the data it needs to improve analysis and prevent future terrorist attacks.

``How is this agency to know what it doesn't know?'' Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., asked at a hearing Thursday of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. ``You're adding another player to this equation.''

President Bush's domestic security chief, Tom Ridge, told that panel Thursday, and a later hearing of the House Government Reform Committee, that the new department will ``connect the dots'' better than the current system even if it mainly gets scrubbed reports, assessments and analyses from the agencies.

Ridge said Bush wants the CIA to remain accountable directly to the president and for the FBI to stay within the Justice Department instead of moving into the new department, as some lawmakers suggest. The new department, he said, will bring a fresh perspective and analysis combined with an assessment of U.S. risks and the ability to take quick action to protect against attacks.

``This would be the only venue where all the information gathered by all the intelligence agencies of the United States could be reviewed,'' Ridge told the Senate panel. ``That integration has never occurred anywhere in the federal government before.''

Some Republican lawmakers defended the administration.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., said it was important to have a ``firewall'' between the massive amounts of intelligence data collected and the analysts at a new department to forestall ``the possibility that the new agency would be inundated with truckloads of intelligence data.''

But others were not so sure the intelligence agencies will play along.

``What makes anyone think they will communicate with a new, untested agency?'' asked Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.

The eight hours of hearings were the first since Bush released detailed plans for the new department Tuesday. It would combine 100 scattered federal entities with 170,000 employees and total annual budgets of at least $37 billion.

It also marked Ridge's first formal public testimony on Capitol Hill. He previously resisted such appearances on grounds that he is a confidential adviser to the president.