WASHINGTON-Anti-terrorism legislation, at one time the most promising vehicle for funding Federal Bureau of Investigation implementation of digital wiretap legislation, died in Congress late last month to the dismay of the Clinton administration and delight of civil libertarians.
The digital wiretap bill, signed into law in 1994 and crafted to help law enforcement conduct authorized eavesdropping on advanced telecommunications networks, authorized $500 million for fiscal years 1995 through 1998. But Congress has not appropriated a cent to date to meet that figure, which congressional budget experts predicted early on might be too low. Wireless and wireline carriers are considered to be in compliance with the new wiretap law if funds are not available to reimburse them for making modifications to their networks.
In two weeks, telecommunications firms will submit comments to the FBI on the capacity requirements mandated by the new electronic surveillance law. Comments originally were due in November, but the FBI agreed to an extension requested by the Personal Communications Industry Association, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and the United States Telephone Association.
The failure of the GOP-led Congress to underwrite digital wiretap legislation has created a dilemma for FBI Director Louis Freeh-who lobbied hard for the bill-and an embarrassment for the measure’s Senate sponsor, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. It is a bill, in effect, without teeth.
“Because of the importance to public safety and national security, we feel funding will be secured,” said Barry Smith, a government relations FBI agent. Efforts are underway to identify alternative monies to help law enforcement carry out the digital wiretap statute, he noted.
The House’s original anti-terrorism bill included a funding mechanism to pay for implementing the digital wiretap bill, but it was subsequently pulled out. The anti-terrorism bill that passed the Senate, 91 to 8 last June, did not include digital wiretap dollars.
A Democratic aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the notion that the new digital wiretap bill cannot be enforced without appropriations, arguing the money will be forthcoming whether that be this year or next.
“If the FBI does not get funding the rate payers will just have to pick up the tab,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The staffer warned that telecommunications carriers refusing to aid law enforcement because digital wiretap funds are not available run a public relations risk of tarnishing their image as good corporate citizens.
“A deal is a deal,” said Thomas Wheeler, president of CTIA, referring to the carrier reimbursement provision. “We take the government at its word.”