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Pro-privacy senator dies in crash

Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash Friday, was a former labor activist and ardent liberal. He fought to bolster Americans' privacy rights and tried to limit Internet surveillance.

WASHINGTON--Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who fought to bolster Americans' privacy rights and limit government surveillance of the Internet, was killed in a plane crash on Friday afternoon.

Wellstone, 58, was an unapologetic liberal who was elected in 1990 and opposed the Gulf War, sought to increase the minimum wage, and envisioned a tax-funded health care system. He was enmeshed in a tight re-election bid this year.

In January, he asked the Federal Communications Commission to require telephone companies to seek customer permission before selling personal information. That information would include telephone number details of a customer's incoming and outgoing calls.

"Consumers have a right to know that their confidential records, including records of telephone numbers called, will remain confidential," Wellstone said. Later that month, Qwest Communications said it would postpone plans to market its phone records.

When the Senate was considering the USA Patriot Act last fall, Wellstone joined with Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., to offer three amendments that would have curtailed electronic surveillance.

One amendment said that only in narrow circumstances may universities, libraries and employers snoop on people who use their computers. Without it, the USA Patriot Act said that system administrators should be able to monitor anyone they deem a "computer trespasser."

A second change would have made sure that telephone and Internet wiretaps were used to target only the person under surveillance. A third would have protected medical records and educational records from investigators unless a judge specifically approved the search.

"It is critically important that each and everyone, every senator and representative, monitor the use of new authorities provided to the law enforcement agents to conduct surveillance. We're going to have to monitor this very closely," Wellstone said during the floor debate. "There's no reason why, in the rush to pass the bill, we can't make changes."

The Senate rejected all three amendments by overwhelming margins.

"I think Wellstone always did what he believed in," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "People respected him for it. He was definitely one of the heroes during the debate over the Patriot Act."

When the final vote came on the USA Patriot Act, Wellstone joined nearly all of his colleagues in voting for it. Feingold was the lone dissenter.

Votes like that and Wellstone's support of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act transformed some of his early supporters into critics.

The left-wing magazine Mother Jones once called him "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate." But by early 2001, the magazine recanted, saying the onetime labor activist had "sold out his best impulses along the way."

Wellstone received a 50 percent rating from the Information Technology Industry Council in its "high tech voting guide" released this week, which reflects support for pro-industry bills.

Wellstone's name likely will not remain on the ballot in next month's elections, in which he was running against Republican Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul. Under Minnesota law, a political party can replace the name of any candidate who dies up to four days before the election with another name.