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Officials warn of 'electronic sanctuary' for criminals

July 14, 1999
Web posted at: 9:21 PM EDT (0121 GMT)

From CNN's Terry Frieden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Spies will go uncaptured, drug kingpins will remain free, and terrorists will kill innocent victims if Congress fails to stop a popular legislative proposal to drop export restrictions on data-scrambling computer technology, four top government officials warned Wednesday.

Outgoing Drug Enforcement Administrator Thomas Constantine, offering the most dire predictions, said lawmakers would create "an electronic sanctuary" for criminals intent on disrupting public safety or national security if the plan to drop controls on exports of encryption technology is not stopped. He said use of the equipment, which scrambles plain text into unbreakable code, is skyrocketing among organized crime groups.

Constantine said that the wealthy, sophisticated cartels he tracks are increasingly able to outfox law enforcement by encoding the orders sent from Colombia and Mexico to lieutenants in the U.S.

The House Intelligence Committee members who heard the dire warnings expressed alarm at the potential consequences. Republicans and Democrats alike urged President Clinton to immediately focus public attention on the looming dangers.

Rep. Joe LaHood, R-Illinois announced he will immediately remove himself from a long list of 254 House co-sponsors who back what is named the "Security and Freedom Through Encryption Act."

"I would call it the Drug Lord Protection Act," Constantine fumed.

Deputy Defense Secretary John Hambre was equally blunt.

"It protects spies," Hambre declared. In passionate testimony, he charged Congress was "pandering to cyber-libertarians" and succumbing to a "romantic view" of the high-tech industry, which has lobbied intensely for passage of the measure.

Hambre said the legislation purportedly aimed at protecting citizen privacy from possible government abuse could prevent intelligence officials from discovering spies and moles in their midst.

"You can't then impose privacy concerns only on the government," he said.

Hambre asserted the great threat to citizen privacy in the computer age is not from government, but from criminals and certain highly-invasive private sector businesses.

FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno repeated similar warnings in their second trip to Capitol Hill in two days to slow support for the measure.

"We can predict, without being too dramatic about it, lives will be lost," Freeh said.

Members of both parties urged President Clinton to follow the lead of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called industry leaders, Scotland Yard, and intelligence agencies together to hammer out a compromise that balances privacy concerns, and commercial needs and public safety and national security issues.

"Sixteen Hundred Pennsylvania Avenue should follow the example of Ten Downing Street, and focus national attention on this," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-New York.

Supporters of the measure say the technology is already becoming available from overseas manufacturers. They say if the government doesn't drop controls, U.S. computer makers will suffer a competitive disadvantage.

Co-sponsors of the legislation include Republican leaders Richard Armey and Tom DeLay, and Democratic leaders Richard Gephardt and David Bonior.

The encryption debate is in its fifth year of congressional hearings, but passage of a decontrol measure did not gain momentum until the current session.

In the Senate, meanwhile, an encryption decontrol measure has been approved by the Commerce Committee.

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