Hill throws IT into slew of anti-terrorism bills

With the chilling events of Sept. 11 still fresh in the nation's memory, information technology legislation that might have stalled in the autumn days of the 107th Congress is getting new attention.

From bills that would increase surveillance at borders and airports to more money to develop systems that would share information across agencies, Congress is poised to spend billions of dollars on anti-terrorism packages that include building better infrastructures and high-tech tools to ferret out and thwart terrorism.

"We will provide whatever it takes to make sure our country is secure," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.).

One piece of legislation on a fast track is a compromise anti- terrorism bill that gives police new powers to secretly search the homes of terrorism suspects, tap their phones and track their e-mail. It passed the House Oct. 24 and the Senate Oct. 25. President Bush was expected to sign it.

"The House is taking a responsible step forward by giving law enforcement the tools necessary to secure the safety of Americans while protecting our constitutional rights," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Also moving through the House is a $317.5 billion Defense spending bill that is expected to include an additional $20 billion or more for the war on terrorism. "This is basically a peacetime defense bill, and we ain't at peace no more," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Defense.

The Bush administration proposes spending the $20 billion on national security ($6.4 billion) and homeland security ($6.9 billion, which includes $2.8 billion for upgrading the nation's ability to deal with biological and chemical threats).

Lawmakers and IT experts inside and outside government say more money will be needed. "There is a desperate need for funding for cybersecurity," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

The issue has no partisan boundaries. If he were running the new Office of Homeland Security, Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, said he would spend his "first dollar" on agencies being able to share information via computer networks.

Some of the most pressing pieces of legislation aim to do just that. Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) wants to give rural police departments $2.5 billion — $500 million a year during the next five years — so they can gain access to various crime-fighting and information-sharing resources on the Internet, as well as upgrade outdated and obsolete technology.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) called for money to set up a cross- reference data bank among law enforcement agencies to determine if a visa applicant has a criminal record. By sharing data among federal agencies, he said law enforcement officers might be able to stop potential terrorists before they cross the borders.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) is pushing legislation to allow the federal government and industry to share information about potential threats to the nation's critical infrastructure without the fear the data would be released under the Freedom of Information Act.

"With more than 85 percent of critical infrastructure entities owned and operated by the private sector, voluntarily shared information leads to a more focused understanding of threats and empowers government, industry and private citizens to mitigate risk," Bennett said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is pushing a new bioterrorism bill that would spend up to $10 billion to combat biological and chemical warfare using technology. As part of that legislation, he would earmark $1.4 billion to improve the nation's public health infrastructure.

And there are mounds of other proposals pending to use electronic cameras, smart cards and computers with "sniffing" software to survey the mail for dangerous substances, not to mention proposals to put the federal government in charge of airport security.

The House Judiciary Committee has approved legislation that would expand the definitions of two devices now used to track phone calls — pen registers that record the numbers dialed on a phone and a tracing device that can identify the originating number of a phone call.

But Congress is also facing the urgent task of deciding what comes first. Should anthrax and smallpox vaccines top the list? Or should airports have the technology to detect the kind of box cutters used in the hijackings of four passenger jets on Sept. 11?

All of this is taking place even though Congress was forced to relocate from Capitol Hill in the wake of an anthrax scare that led to a partial shutdown of congressional offices for several days. Marooned in temporary work space, lawmakers and their staffs struggled with even the simple task of communicating with the outside world. Each of the 435 House members was issued two laptops, but many were not connected to their office e-mail systems, and some members failed to put forwarding messages on their office phones.

"We can't call. We can't write. We can't e-mail," said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of ITAA's Enterprise Solutions Division. "Things are very much up in the air."

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