WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration bestowed broad new domestic spying powers on the beleaguered FBI Thursday, saying it needed a new weapon in the battle against terrorism and promising not to let the bureau lapse into the file-building abuses of a bygone era.
In a move aimed at averting another Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft freed the FBI to monitor Internet sites, libraries, churches and political organizations, calling restrictions on domestic spying "a competitive advantage for terrorists."
Civil liberties groups criticized the move. But President Bush said, "We intend to honor our Constitution and respect the freedoms that we hold so dear."
"The FBI needed to change," said the president. "It was an organization full of fine people who loved America but the organization didn't meet the times."
Under revamped guidelines, agents can attend public meetings for the purpose of preventing terrorism. The old guidelines issued in the 1970s were aimed at solving crimes already committed.
The earlier restrictions were clamped on the FBI's domestic spying in response to controversies about the bureau's building of case files against prominent Americans, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
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.
"These major changes will free field agents to pursue terrorists vigorously without waiting for headquarters to act," said Ashcroft. He said agents in the field "are frustrated because many of our internal restrictions have hampered" their efforts to move quickly on investigations.
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.
The new guidelines give FBI agents more freedom to investigate terrorism even when they are not pursuing a particular case.
Mueller said the changes "will be exceptionally helpful to us."
"Our reforms of the FBI will and must strengthen our ability to prevent future terrorist attacks," the FBI director said.
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," said ACLU legislative counsel Marvin Johnson.
Mo Bey of the Islamic Center of Washington said, "I don't think citizens should be violated because of their religious affiliations."