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Armed Services Committee Votes to Cripple Crypto Export Bill.

By Rachel Chalmers After hearing arguments from US Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh, the House Armed Services Committee has voted 47-6 to amend a law that would lift bans on the export of encryption technology. The Committee's amendments block practically all of the Security And Freedom through Encryption Act (SAFE)'s provisions for export relief. "It frankly amazed me that we are even having this debate and that those arguing on behalf of law enforcement and national security are the underdogs," committee chairman Floyd Spence complained to Reuters.

Meanwhile Curt Weldon, who introduced the amendment, told Wired News: "Proliferation of encryption technology would harm our ability to gather vital intelligence, jeopardize our early threat warning and attack assessment, risk our ability to maintain an information-based advantage over our enemies, and place our nation's most secure systems at risk." Weldon was echoing the words of Reno, Freeh and Barbara McNamara, deputy director of the National Security Agency.

McNamara told the Committee that SAFE would "harm national security by making our job of providing critical, actionable intelligence to our leaders and military commanders difficult, if not impossible." It is widely believed that attempts to contain the widespread use of strong encryption are aimed not so much at curbing the activities of drug dealers and terrorists as at protecting Project Echelon, a program of indiscriminate electronic surveillance conducted by the NSA and its counterparts in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia since the end of World War Two.

Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte drafted SAFE in a bid to ease the export of encryption products of any strength that is "generally available" from overseas vendors. He was prompted by US software and hardware vendors, who are losing business to enterprising rivals in countries like Ireland, Israel and Australia. SAFE would also make vendors' lives easier by restraining the US government from leveraging its purchasing power to force them to build encryption back doors into their products.

By contrast, the Committee amendment would give the president the right to veto any export he considers to be "contrary to the national security issues of the United States." It would also require the vendors to tell the government exactly who is buying their encryption products. Any constraints on government use of purchasing power would be dropped.

Finally, the amendment would protect White House export decisions from being challenged in court. That would make it impossible to bring lawsuits like the one University of Illinois professor Daniel Bernstein recently won. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government's attempts to prevent Bernstein from publishing his encryption software on his world wide web site were a violation of his right to free speech. Software, in other words, is constitutionally protected. The government was quick to appeal that ruling, however, and thanks to the appeal, the decision has not yet taken effect. If the House Armed Services Committee has its way, it never will.
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Publication:Computergram International
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 23, 1999
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