A House Judiciary panel is considering writing tougher standards for FBI terrorism investigations in the United States to prevent the bureau from violating the rights of legitimate domestic political groups.
Lawmakers concede that election-year politics probably will delay action until 1989. But during a hearing on Monday into possible FBI abuses in an investigation of anti-Reagan administration activists, members of the House Judiciary subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights agreed with witnesses who recommended new controls on such investigations.FBI officials have said an internal investigation of the operation found several problems with it, and The New York Times reported Tuesday that an internal FBI report recommends disciplinary action against some of those involved.
FBI spokesman Milt Ahlerich would not comment on the contents of the report and said that FBI Director William Sessions had made no decision on its recommendations.
The FBI conducted much of its probe of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a U.S. group opposed to Reagan administration policies in Central America, under guidelines that are supposed to cover investigations of international terrorism.
Those guidelines allowed the bureau to conduct widespread surveillance of political rallies, as well as individuals including nuns, union officials and college professors opposed to administration policy.
Witnesses and lawmakers at Monday's hearing said there should be just one set of guidelines instead of the current two - domestic and international - governing such investigations.
The standard, witnesses agreed, should specify that the FBI look for criminal actions and steer clear of a group's political activity.
Lawmakers and witnesses also agreed that the standard should be written into law instead of left to the attorney general to determine.
"What we've tried to do in the past is rely on the Constitution for protecting individual rights," said Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of the House panel. "I am thinking seriously of sometime early next year taking another quick look at this issue and writing the beginnings of an FBI charter."
The FBI justified its use of the international terrorism probe guidelines in the CISPES investigation by citing an informant's claim that some of the group's members were giving money and supplies to a leftist group in El Salvador.
But no criminal charges were ever filed against CISPES or any of its members, and the investigation was closed in June 1985.
One witness at Monday's hearing, Morton Halperin, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the current guidelines "accommodate the demands of law enforcement without fully protecting the lawful exercise of our constitutional rights."
Halperin said the FBI's investigation of CISPES "demonstrates that the current FBI guidelines have failed to protect Americans from improper government surveillance."
According to FBI documents released in January and comments by FBI officials since then, the bureau's initial probe of CISPES began in September 1981 as an investigation into alleged criminal violations of domestic security laws.
That investigation was closed the following February. But in March 1983, the FBI began a new investigation of CISPES under the broader guidelines governing international terrorism. Although much of those guidelines are classified, it is known that they give the FBI far more sweeping authority to investigate U.S. citizens than the domestic guidelines do.