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US Rep threatens FBI budget over Carnivore

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US Representative and House Majority Leader Richard Armey (Republican, Texas) has steadily denounced the FBI's packet-sniffing apparatus known as Carnivore since it was first unveiled by a proud Reno DoJ a year ago.

But now, bolstered by a recent US Supreme Court decision which affirms in no uncertain terms the right of privacy in the home, Armey is playing hardball, making it clear that he's prepared to use the Congressional grip on funds allocated to the Federal Bureaucracy against the Department of Justice if Carnivore isn't de-fanged and brought to heel.

The two chief problems with Carnivore are that it enables the Feds to monitor and record packet traffic other than that associated with the subject; and that it contains inadequate auditing mechanisms to ensure that over-zealous operators who peek at data they're not authorized to see can be caught in the act, as we explained here.

This week Armey sent a letter to US Attorney General John Ashcroft, urging him to re-consider Carnivore in light of the Supreme Court's ban on certain types of high-tech surveillance.

"It is reasonable....to ask whether the Internet surveillance system formerly known as "Carnivore"....undermines the minimum expectation that individuals have that their personal electronic communications will not be examined by law enforcement devices unless a specific court warrant has been issued," Armey says.

He also perceives the Reno-DoJ's soothing technical review of Carnivore to be a whitewash:

"Your predecessor, Attorney General Janet Reno, reluctantly undertook a review of Carnivore last year in an attempt to address these concerns. That review, however, seemed to raise more questions about the system than it answered. The review team ultimately selected was found to have clear political ties to the Clinton Administration."

This is nothing unusual for Armey, who has openly loathed Carnivore from day one. What's new is the possibility of jamming up the DoJ's budget, a move we attribute to confidence based on the Supremes' strong words in defense of privacy.

"If necessary he would consider using Congress's power of the purse to pull the plug on Carnivore," Armey aide Richard Diamond is quoted by Reuters as saying.

The Congressman may be preaching to the choir here, as Ashcroft gained a reputation as a privacy fundamentalist during his tenure in the US Senate on behalf of Missouri. Then again, being Attorney General may bring 'new perspectives' on privacy, and Ashcroft has yet to signal whether or not the job is affecting his judgment in that realm.

Armey plays on that reputation subtly as he challenges Ashcroft to do the right thing:

"Because I am confident that you will take a much more constructive approach to this issue, I wanted to share my privacy concern with you directly. I believe the FBI is making a good-faith effort to fight crime in the most efficient way possible. But I also believe the Founders quite clearly decided to sacrifice that kind of efficiency for the sake of protecting citizens from the danger of an overly intrusive government," he says.

Readers wishing to encourage Representative Armey in fighting the good fight may send a memo to this e-mail address. ®

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