Cohen Urges USTA to Help Change Obsolete Rules

Former defense secretary William Cohen said the telecom industry should help change "obsolete" rules that shield terrorists from detection, but insisted that information gathered from innocent Internet users should not be distributed or abuse

Terrorists struck at the heart of the United States because Americans had grown "lazy, soft and indulgent," former Defense Secretary William Cohen told 2,000 people at the 104th annual convention of the U.S. Telecom Association in Phoenix on Monday.

"We had become a land of lotus-eaters," Cohen told the gathering. "We had grown lazy in our border patrols, in our immigration policy and in our support for the military. We believed that no one would dare attack us. That illusion was shattered."

Cohen, defense secretary under President Clinton, said the telecom industry should help change "obsolete rules that shield terrorists from detection, but insisted that information gathered from innocent Internet users isnt distributed or abused.

"The telecom industry has an important voice to raise to analyze what the right tradeoff is," Cohen said after his talk. "The wiretap laws say that you can wire tap one phone, but if you have multiple phones and youre a known or suspected terrorist, they cant go after the other phones. That seems pretty obsolete."

In 1999, in the wake of the terrorist attack on the U.S.S. Cole in the Persian Gulf, Cohen warned that a sophisticated, devastating attack on the homeland of America was inevitable unless security and communications were improved. His warnings werent even picked up by the major news media.

"Do we want to say that suspected terrorists have the freedom to communicate without any ability of domestic law enforcement agencies to intercept those communications through the Internet or e-mail? he asked rhetorically. Yet, privacy concerns cant be ignored, he noted, even during a global assault on terrorism.

Prior to Sept. 11, requests for electronic surveillance of the Internet communications of suspected terrorists have been routinely granted. Attorney General John Ashcroft has proposed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which privacy advocates have criticized for its broad powers to intercept e-mail from millions of innocent Internet users.

Cohen said the same kinds of privacy protections for wiretaps should be extended to Internet communications. "There have to be barriers in place so information gathered in that manner arent distributed or shared. Congress will decide those tradeoffs, but the industry has an important role to play as the conscience of an America anxious to combat terrorist threats, and also safeguard liberty and privacy, he said. "The industry has to say, Here are our concerns. How can we achieve the law enforcement goal and not have a wholesale undercutting of privacy? That debate has to take place.

Earlier, USTA chief executive Walter McCormick urged large and small service providers, competitive and incumbent carriers to unite as one super association in a grand show of political and economic force, the better to defeat terrorism and to rebuild infrastructure and revenues.

In his call for a united front to advance the financial and physical security of the U.S. telecom industry, McCormick swiped at federal and state regulations. Central offices, switches and physical plants need to be more secure, he said, but those cant be improved without some regulatory relief that will give carriers an incentive to spend. "Networks are built, applications are developed, redundancies are achieved, and upgrades are made where there is an opportunity to make money by doing so.

He reiterated the USTAs support for deregulation of the incumbent local exchange carriers that handle less than 2 percent of the voice traffic - that is, every telecom except Verizon, BellSouth, SBC Communications and Qwest Communications International; for broadband deregulation, tax relief and caps on universal service.

Many competitive carriers that have gone bankrupt blame laws that they say favor the regional Bells and other established carriers. But McCormick said other competitors have flourished and its time for Congress to loosen the tethers on an industry that is no longer monopolistic. If regulators dont let the regional Bells recover their costs when they lease lines to competitors, and if they impose more burdens on telecoms than on cable operators, theyre putting at a disadvantage the carriers that people turn to at times of crisis, "thereby undermining the national interest in assuring a strong wireline infrastructure."

Voice telephony in the 20th century needs to be revised for data, voice and video telecommunications in the 21st century, he said. "Where there is competition, there should not be regulation. As the monopoly sunsets, so should economic regulation.