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Senators seek delay in FBI's expanded spy powers

WASHINGTON — Two senior senators urged Attorney General Michael Mukasey Monday to delay a change to FBI rules that critics say would weaken checks on the bureau's investigative powers.

Mukasey wants to loosen restrictions on the FBI's national security and criminal investigations, saying the changes are necessary to improve the bureau's ability to detect would-be-terrorists.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., however, asked Mukasey to put those new rules off until after FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 17.

"The guidelines aim to improve the FBI's ability to gather intelligence and respond to national security matters, but would also provide additional authorities not currently in law, allowing the FBI to employ more expansive investigative practices with limited oversight," the senators wrote in a letter sent Monday.

The Justice Department has kept the proposal under wraps for at least a month, but Mukasey provided a few details last week. For example, he said the new rules would do away with differences in how agents rely on informants in national security and criminal investigations. Under the current rules, agents are more limited in how they use information from informants in national security cases.

In addition, Mukasey said agents would be given more latitude to conduct surveillance in national security cases based on a tip and would be permitted to search more databases than allowed previously in criminal cases.

Critics have said such changes, along with proposed new law enforcement sharing measures, would weaken restrictions originally put in place after the Watergate scandal to rein in the FBI's domestic spying program.

Separately, the Justice Department also has proposed new regulations to do away with "unreasonable impediments" to information-sharing among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Civil libertarians complain that the regulations could make it too easy for local and state law enforcement agencies to collect intelligence on Americans.

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the revisions would require local and state law enforcement agencies to devise a written plan on how they would prevent civil liberties violations.

Carr said the department is reviewing congressional recommendations on the FBI rules. The Justice Department recently briefed congressional staff members on the FBI proposal, but did not allow them to retain copies of the draft. The rules are expected to go into effect Oct. 1.

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