ACLU Tells House Panel That FBI Is Engaged In Unprecedented Power Grab

July 24, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON -- Testifying about the new "Carnivore" wiretapping system, the American Civil Liberties Union today told a House committee that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is engaged in an "unprecedented" power grab that threatens the privacy of all Americans.

"Never before has the FBI insisted that it has the authority to capture all of the communications passing through a network," said ACLU Associate Director Barry Steinhardt. "Never before has a law enforcement agency asked for this kind of power based on an unsupervised promise that it will not stray beyond the confines of its authority."

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Steinhardt urged Congress to reject the FBI's reasoning and adopt legislation that would uphold the Fourth Amendment's protection against unwarranted searches. Steinhardt said that the FBI's recent dog-and-pony shows with lawmakers and the media to demonstrate the technology behind Carnivore have not addressed concerns that the system includes no oversight of the information the FBI is capturing.

"If you accept the FBI's arguments in favor of Carnivore," he said, "you reject the Fourth Amendment, which is built on the premise that law enforcement cannot be trusted with carte blanche authority when it conducts a search."

According to the FBI, the Carnivore system -- essentially a computer running specialized software -- is attached to an Internet Service Provider's network and searches through all of its customers' electronic messages (including email, web addresses and instant messages) looking for the messages of a person suspected of a crime.

The new system comes at a time of record wiretapping by federal law enforcement. In the last reporting period, Steinhardt said, the Clinton Administration conducted more wiretaps in one year than had ever been conducted before.

"Congress must send a clear message to the FBI," Steinhardt said. "Under no circumstances must it be allowed to engage in such a mass invasion of the privacy of law-abiding Americans."

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