- In response to last week's terrorist attacks, the US Senate has approved expanding the permissible uses of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation's Carnivore email surveillance system to include investigating acts of terrorism and computer crimes.
The measure would also allow broader use of internet tapping by law enforcement authorities and calls on the government to "make better use of its considerable accomplishments in science and technology" to combat terrorism.
The measure, called the "Combating Terrorism Act of 2001," was included in an amendment to the 2002 appropriations budget for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State and the Judiciary. The proposal, which broadens existing law to include terrorism as one of the crimes that merits high-tech surveillance, would give all US Attorneys the authority to order the installation of Carnivore, a power previously reserved only for US Deputy Assistant Attorneys General. The act would also authorise a number of programs and initiatives aimed at preventing future terrorism.
The proposal calls for the president to "establish a comprehensive program of long-term research and development with respect (to) science and technology necessary to prevent, preempt, detect, interdict and respond to catastrophic terrorist attacks." Such attacks are defined as those "perpetrated by a state, substate or nonstate actor that involves mass casualties or the use of a weapon of mass destruction."
President George W Bush is called upon to establish a federal agency to oversee the program or to assign a current agency to take responsibility. If the responsibility is handed to a current agency, the amendment allows additional legal authority to be provided to it.
"If we wait any longer (to grant law enforcement these powers) ... it is a big, big mistake," said bill sponsor Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah) alluding to the week's events during the Senate's debate on the matter Wednesday.
"Millions of dollars are lost annually as a direct result of (computer crime), and it is no longer a fantasy that thousands of lives could be lost in future terrorist incidents," he said.
Carnivore has drawn considerable criticism from privacy and civil liberties advocates who fear that its use will severely encroach on the civil rights of US citizens. Since the attacks, concerned groups have warned that the response to the crimes may include a restriction on civil liberties and have also pointed out that there is no evidence linking the attackers to the use of any high technology.
Hatch sought to address some of those concerns on the Senate floor, saying, "we must also be careful that in our quest for vengeance we do not trample those very liberties which separate us as a society from those who want to destroy us."
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a cyber-rights group that has opposed high-tech surveillance, issued a statement last Friday saying that "surrendering freedom will not purchase security" and that "open communications networks are a positive force in the fight against violence and intolerance"
The statement also urges both the president and Congress to proceed cautiously and calmly on such matters.
"If we give up the constitutional freedoms fundamental to our democratic way of life," the CDT wrote, "then the terrorists will have won."
The amendment was sponsored by Hatch and co-sponsored by Senator Jon Kyl (Republican-Arizona).