House Examines Wiretap Issues

Efforts by the Bush administration to press Congress for swift enactment of new wiretap legislation in the aftermath of the terrorist hijackings are quashed by the House.

Despite gains by privacy activists calling for restraint in the governments efforts to expand its surveillance powers, insiders say greater access to data traveling over private networks is inevitable.

Nevertheless, efforts by the Bush administration to press Congress for swift enactment of new wiretap legislation in the aftermath of the terrorist hijackings last month were quashed last week by the House of Representatives. House members, who would normally be heading home for the year at the end of this week, say theyll stay to debate the matter for as long as it takes.

After hearing from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on his proposed anti-terrorism legislation early last week, the House Judiciary Committee canceled a session to polish up the bill for a vote, primarily because of concerns about privacy rights and immigration. That session will take place this week, leading to a likely vote in the House Friday, according to staffers with the committee.

Republicans and Democrats alike have objected to the scope of the Department of Justices proposals and are negotiating ways to limit them either to terrorist investigations or to a specified time period, staffers said.

At this weeks session, Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., plan to introduce a substitute bill that will narrow the definitions of new powers for law enforcement.

It will also include sunset provisions for electronic surveillance, and many members are in favor of a three-year limit, sources said.

In the struggle to give law enforcement the tools it needs to combat terrorism, members are looking for ways to prevent the permanent erosion of privacy rights, particularly the privacy of Internet communications and wireless telephone calls.

Following last weeks hearing, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Wis., said he was concerned about the scope of the administrations requests. "Specifically, I am concerned about the intrusiveness of new procedures regarding electronic communications, as well as procedures for automatic incarceration of certain immigrants," Cannon said.

As written, the DOJs proposals would give law enforcement access to a larger variety of Internet and e-mail data--such as it is able to glean with the use of Carnivore software--without having to obtain a court-reviewed wiretap order based on a showing of probable cause.

When Carnivore is used to monitor a network--such as a service providers network--it captures data from all users, causing concerns among privacy advocates.

"Theres no reason that good surveillance cannot be done in the context of judicial review," said Jay Stanley, privacy public education coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. "They already have plenty of power to surveil anyone who they have evidence is a terrorist."