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Internet privacy loses a voice in D.C.

CNET's Declan McCullagh assesses the legacy of defeated congressman Bob Barr, one of the fiercest champions of individual privacy in the U.S. House of Representatives.

WASHINGTON--Georgia Rep. Bob Barr is an irascible conservative, an unyielding foe of abortion, gay marriage, and any drug more potent than nicotine. A floor manager during Bill Clinton's impeachment, Barr had lobbied for the president's ouster long before anyone knew of an intern's unfortunate affections inside the Oval Office.

Yet even Naderites should recognize that Barr's defeat in Georgia's Republican primary last week removes the fiercest champion of privacy in the U.S. House of Representatives, and his electoral loss will be a gain for the surveillance state.

As a member of the influential House Judiciary Committee, which oversees criminal laws, Barr has been in a unique position to advance privacy-friendly proposals while thwarting his opponents' more heinous schemes. Barr tried to limit government snooping on Americans' bank accounts (it failed, in a 129-299 vote), successfully campaigned for more oversight of the FBI's Carnivore monitoring system, and opposed a plan to let police obtain customer records from Internet providers and telephone companies without search warrants.

In 1999, Barr, a former CIA analyst, pressed for hearings to investigate the extent of the National Security Agency's shadowy Echelon surveillance network. "If Congress doesn't exercise regular as well as periodic oversight, then agencies are going to get away with as much as they can," he told me at the time.

Now all that has changed. A redistricting created by the Democrat-controlled state legislature threw Barr in a race against another conservative Republican, Rep. John Linder, in the north Atlanta suburbs. By using Barr's prominence in the Clinton impeachment against him, Linder won last week by a two-to-one margin. (An embarrassing incident when Barr, a board member of the National Rifle Association, was handling a supporter's antique pistol and it accidentally discharged sure didn't hurt Linder's chances either.)

Barr says he's not giving up the privacy fight.
Barr says he's not giving up the privacy fight. "It's an issue that has been very close to my heart during the entire time that I've been in the Congress," Barr said last Friday. "A lot of it stems from the fact that I've been a prosecutor and I've been at the CIA and I know from prior public service just how powerful government is. It's given me a very healthy skepticism of giving government more and more power."

The political Barr
Barr is an unusual political phenomenon: An unapologetic Republican--boasting a 100 percent voting rating from the Christian Coalition and a zero percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters--who frequently allies with left-leaning groups on privacy topics. The American Civil Liberties Union applauds his approach to privacy, and even the liberal diehards at People for the American Way say they agree with Barr on the invasive nature of "legislation proposed and passed since September 11."

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Barr entered the spotlight as the Judiciary committee wrestled with President Bush's USA Patriot Act. Barr initially denounced the bill as handing police too much surveillance powers, and then ended up embracing it. "We were able to eliminate or severely limit the most egregious violations of Americans' civil liberties that were contained in the original proposal," Barr said after the vote. (Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, another pro-privacy politico, opposed the final bill.)

"Barr made it respectable to question the giveaway of powers to government in the civil liberties area in a very, very difficult time in America's history. And that's certainly worth a lot," says Fred Smith, who runs the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute. "Even though he didn't totally succeed, he was one of the voices raised. He did this from a southern state and from a conservative perspective, and that was very useful."

Libertarians may applaud Barr's suspicion of government eavesdropping, his support of low taxes, and his vigorous defense of Second Amendment rights. But that's about it.

Privacy vs. the drug war
Barr's opposition even to medical marijuana legalization prompted the Libertarian Party to run an ad campaign in the primary election. It featured a disturbing video of a multiple sclerosis patient saying Barr wanted to put her in prison.

Oddly enough, Barr seems to see no disconnect in his two cherished beliefs, even though the drug war is the most obvious reason for the erosion of privacy. Government officials have repeatedly warned of "drug smugglers" and "money launderers" while asking for encryption export controls, increased wiretap powers, and the authority to conduct infrared scans of homes without search warrants. The FBI claims its controversial Carnivore system is a big help in narcotics investigations. "The Fourth Amendment has been virtually repealed by court decisions, most of which involve drug searches," Steven Duke, a professor of law at Yale University, said last year.

Barr's pursuit of Clinton became another lightning rod for criticism. Even after Clinton left office, Barr wouldn't drop his pursuit of the ex-president. He filed a $30 million lawsuit against Clinton, Democratic guru James Carville and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, alleging emotional distress arising from the impeachment proceeding.

"Very, very few members of Congress have the combination of a background in these issues, an interest in them, and a backbone to take on the status quo."
--Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.
In June, Barr spoke at an event organized by the Objectivist Center, a group dedicated to the individualist principles that author Ayn Rand described in her novels. "As the sphere of privacy shrinks ever smaller, the sphere of government power necessarily grows larger," Barr said at the time.

"My evaluation is that he clearly was a Republican who took privacy issues seriously and who had thought deeply about them," said Ed Hudgins, who runs the center's Washington, D.C., office. "The particular reason why he asked to speak at our opening reception for the Objectivist Center was that he saw Ayn Rand as one of the few people who deeply understood the idea of privacy."

Hudgins says that, as an objectivist himself, he doesn't agree with Barr's hearty endorsement of the war on (some) drugs. "Obviously, we had differences with him, but we were happy to say that on this issue he understood at a profound level the importance of privacy at a free society," Hudgins said.

Earlier this year, Barr drafted a bill that would require federal agencies to consider the impact of proposed regulations on individual privacy. Earlier in his career, he criticized an Internet-monitoring plan invented by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and asked the Internet Engineering Task Force not to craft technology to aid government surveillance.

Next steps
Barr said he plans to remain active in the fight to preserve privacy rights. When I asked Barr if that meant starting a nonprofit organization, joining an existing one, or going to work at a law firm, he said he was contemplating all three choices.

"There's a real need out there for a substantive approach to privacy. Very, very few members of Congress have the combination of a background in these issues, an interest in them, and a backbone to take on the status quo," Barr said. "There's a void, and if I can help in some small way, I'll do it."