U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft shopped the Bush administration's anti-terrorism agenda to the nation's regional telecom providers today, urging them to press ahead with reforms that would make it easier for the government to intercept terrorist communications.
He also asked for the industry's support for a bill that would allow companies to share sensitive data with the government without fearing that federal law would require the government to release it.
"The freedom of information concept has virtue, but it also has liability," Ashcroft said.
Speaking at the U.S. Telecom Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., today, Ashcroft said federal law enforcement officials sorely need new tools to gather covert information to win what is shaping up to be an unconventional war on terrorism.
"When a criminal seeks to extinguish himself in the commission of the crime, prosecution is a relatively ineffective strategy. Prevention is the only clear priority," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft praised Congress for its passage of the Patriot Act, which -- among other things -- allows federal law enforcement agents to track suspected criminals' communications across multiple jurisdictions with a single court order.
"This increased efficiency saves vital time, time necessary to stop our enemies before they strike," he said. "Given the opportunity, extremists would cripple American telecommunications."
Ashcroft also hailed the administration's efforts to create a public-private sector partnership to share information on vulnerabilities in the nation's most critical infrastructures, both physical and Internet-based.
Many companies have said they would be willing to more fully participate in the partnership if they were guaranteed their communications could not be disclosed via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
Toward that end, Ashcroft urged telecom leaders to support legislation in the House and Senate that would exempt information that companies share with the government on computer or network vulnerabilities from FOIA.
The attorney general also defended the administration's decision to restrict access to certain documents that the White House is worried could fall into the wrong hands. Ever since Sept. 11, the administration has cleansed federal agency Web sites and reading rooms of any public documents or records that could help terrorists plan future attacks on U.S. critical infrastructures. Many state and local governments have since followed suit.
Ashcrosft also urged telecom executives to speed their adoption of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a 1994 statute that requires telephone companies to build surveillance capabilities into their new digital communications systems.
Many telecom providers are requesting the extensions to comply with the law because they cannot afford to implement the new software needed to update their systems, said Mike Warren, former chief of the FBI's CALEA Implementation Bureau.
While the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission have often reimbursed carriers for some CALEA compliance costs, the two agencies are currently not in a financial position to reimburse any companies other than the USTA's core constituents -- the regional Bell operating companies.
"Most carriers are in a holding pattern right now," said Warren, now president of Fiducianet, a company that contracts with telecom companies that receive surveillance requests from the government.
"Manufacturers have developed CALEA solutions, but carriers are still seeing those as very expensive," he said. "So they're faced with a lot of costs and they're going to try to postpone that as much as they can. But in the light of Sept. 11, many carriers are going to be moving forward even without the possibility of reimbursement."
Privacy and consumer advocates watched in horror as Congress moved to enact the Patriot Act last year. Now, civil liberties groups are calling for more oversight of the new powers given to federal law enforcers.
"We haven't yet had congressional oversight over how law is being implemented, and the uses of these new powers are all being cloaked in secrecy," said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Under the Patriot Act, federal law enforcement officials need only to tell a judge that they're investigating suspected terrorist activity to gain access to sensitive financial and medical information about suspected criminals.
"People are hoping these new authorities are bearing fruit, but as far as we know, there hasn't been anyone arrested after Sept. 11 in connection with the attacks," Dempsey said. "We've thought from the start that these new laws were not likely to be effective in preventing new acts of terrorism, but the truth is that we really don't know."
CDT also is concerned that neither of the FOIA bills address industry's responsibility to fix the security problems they share with Congress.
"The question remains, how do we know this is going to be acted upon?" Dempsey said. "What incentive is there to fix the problem? As it stands in the current FOIA bills, there's an indefinite secrecy principle that acts as a disincentive to fix the problem."
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