It seems innocuous enough.
An FBI agent stops off at a public protest gathering, attends a church service, or visits a mosque. Maybe the agent pokes around a few Internet sites or checks a customer data list open to any business, looking for information that might yield a clue about a potential terrorist.
Yet until recently, Justice Department guidelines restricted such activities. Records of earlier years, when US agents spied on political protesters and civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and engaged in dirty tricks now and then had led to congressional investigations and self-imposed restrictions.
But the attacks of Sept. 11 have changed all that. "These restrictions are a competitive advantage for terrorists who skillfully utilize sophisticated techniques and modern computer systems to compile information for targeting and attacking innocent Americans," says Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Mr. Ashcroft has issued new guidelines that cut through red tape and legal restrictions, making it easier for FBI agents to gather information on Americans (as well as on aliens), and allowing them to do so for longer periods without special permission and sometimes without initial evidence of wrongdoing.
While stressing "scrupulous respect for civil rights and personal freedoms," Ashcroft says, "The FBI must draw proactively on all lawful sources of information, to identify terrorist threats and activities."
Meanwhile, the Justice Department this week is expected to announce plans to photograph and fingerprint many more foreigners arriving in the US. This would expand existing regulations designed to spotlight potentially dangerous individuals. It is likely to apply mainly to Muslim and Middle Eastern men.
Critics have been quick to attack the new FBI guidelines. "The government is rewarding failure," says Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's office in Washington. "When the government fails, as it increasingly appears to have done before Sept. 11, the Bush administration's response is to give itself new powers rather than seriously investigating why the failures occurred."
Groups promoting civil rights and liberties worry that the new FBI guidelines could undermine the essence of constitutional democracy. Allowing the Justice Department to monitor conversations between detainees and their lawyers based on vague suspicions of terrorist activity "is a profound violation of fundamental legal and constitutional principles at the very core of our justice system," warns the website of People for the American Way in Washington.
Yet others who might have been expected to give strong weight to civil liberties say terrorism changes the balance in favor of domestic security.
"For too long, the FBI has been hamstrung in its efforts to combat extremism, and has taken a too-timid approach to initiating investigations against potential terrorists," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Mr. Foxman calls the guidelines "very encouraging steps toward enabling the FBI to identify and stop extremism before the crime." For some, this includes questions about focusing on men of Middle Eastern origin.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, who serves on both the judiciary and intelligence committees, thinks the recent debate over racial profiling may have been necessary but has had "a chilling impact" on the FBI. "At this stage at least, one isn't going to look for blonde Norwegians," Senator Feinstein said on CNN last Sunday.
On the other hand, some normally conservative observers have assumed the role of civil libertarians on the issue.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says the Justice Department has gone too far with the new guidelines. The thought that the FBI might revert to questionable spying on activists or dissidents with no proof of wrongdoing, as happened before, leaves him feeling "very, very queasy," he says.
"With not a scintilla of evidence of a crime being committed, the feds will be able to run full investigations for one year," warns New York Times columnist William Safire. "That's aimed at generating suspicion of criminal conduct the very definition of a 'fishing expedition.' "
Part of the controversy relates to advances in technology that have pushed domestic intelligence-gathering well beyond watching a suspect's movements or tapping a phone. In particular, critics worry about the FBI's use of commercial profiling and "data mining" services the kind of things that help telemarketers and other businesses track buying patterns, sometimes by race. Then, too, there's the matter of probing websites that may well be legitimate.
"It is one thing to surf for information about bomb making or child porn, but it is another thing to search for information about Palestinian rights," states a review of the guidelines by Washington's Center for Democracy and Technology.
Some analysts say a major failure of US agencies goes beyond spying on suspects likely to attack the United States to something more fundamental: What motivates such fanatics in the first place? It's an intelligence flaw that, they say, has little to do with the new guidelines.
"Only by understanding religious terrorists not as criminals, but as true believers can we outfox them and defeat them," says Jean Rosenfeld, a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA.