HP scandal reviving pretexting legislation

After their initial interest subsided, politicians are turning their attention back to dealing with those who access others' phone records.

After news reports early this year revealed how remarkably easy it was to unearth someone else's phone records, politicians vowed quick action on new legislation.

"There needs to be a federal law that addresses (phone record theft), otherwise none of us will have any privacy left," Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in January. A few weeks later, Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, added: "I urge the full Senate to consider this measure as soon as possible."

That never happened. Even though politicians had introduced at least 11 related bills by March--all targeting the shady practice of telephone "pretexting"--each of the proposals began to collect dust after the initial flurry of media interest subsided.

Now, however, the burgeoning scandal involving Hewlett-Packard's use of pretexting against board members, employees and journalists, including three reporters from CNET News.com, is breathing new life into the all-but-forgotten legislation. It's also given Democrats new cause to complain that Republicans have squandered their leadership position.

"We know this is not an abstract problem," Rep. Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, said this week. "We've seen with HP the situation where somebody in management basically hired a firm to do pretext calling to violate the privacy rights of the board members of this corporation to get their phone records."

The House of Representatives did approve one anti-pretexting measure (HR4709) in April by a unanimous vote. The bill generally punishes attempts to obtain fraudulent access to phone records with up to 10 years in prison. Unlike some other proposals, however, it would continue to permit pretexting that's performed by police or investigators hired by police.

The logjam arose in the Senate, which referred HR4709 to a committee, which in turn did nothing with it.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist last week, top House Republicans invoked the HP scandal when criticizing senators for dragging their feet.

"Those concerns (about privacy) should have been enough to justify prompt Senate passage of the bill," the letter said. "However, as you will note from the attached recent press reports, the use of pretexting now extends into the corporate boardroom of a major publicly traded company." The letter was signed by Republicans F. James Sensenbrenner and Lamar Smith and Democrat Howard Berman.

Frist's office declined to be interviewed on the record. However, a Frist aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while it's a complicated topic, the HP flap could spur senators along.

The delay in the Senate has been caused not only by what critics call politicians' short attention spans and the lapse in media coverage--but also by a turf battle between two committees that have long been jealous of each other's prerogatives and authority.

The details go like this: The Senate Judiciary Committee has thrown its support behind one bill (S2178) that says pretexting would be a crime unless done by police or government contractors. The Senate Commerce Committee, on the other hand, is backing a rival measure (S2389) that focuses on civil fines and individuals' ability to sue for damages.

Because neither Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, nor Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, has managed to secure an obvious political advantage, the result has been a deadlock that's lasted for about half a year.

One Senate Commerce aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said senators' attention has shifted to the port security bill and that the intra-committee problems could probably be solved over the course of a few meetings. The Frist aide said that if an agreement could be reached, a vote could be scheduled very soon.

The closed-door squabbling among Republican committee chairmen has given Democrats some ammunition, which proved especially welcome with the hotly contested November election just a few weeks away.

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