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Senate debates online weapon info

The Net free speech debate heats up once again, as the Senate hears testimony on both sides regarding Internet publishing of instructions for building and fine tuning weapons of mass destruction.

Politicians frequently praise the Information Age boom. Whether the Net makes it easier for hostile nations to construct better bombs, however, is causing concern in the Senate this week.

During a Senate hearing, witnesses stated that current advanced technology, along with cyberspace, could pose increased security threats if used by enemies to fine tune the precision of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Such "weapons of mass destruction" could be aimed at the United States, those testifying contended.

"The same personal computer technology that enhances our lives also makes it easier for less technologically advanced adversaries to design and build weapons that put the United States at risk," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), chair of the Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services, during his opening statements at yesterday?s hearing.

"The Internet puts the vast technical resources of the United States, and those of other countries, at the disposal of anyone with a telephone line," he added. "NASA, for example, maintains a database of more than 2 million technical documents, including detailed reports on the construction of long-range ballistic missiles, available to anyone with access to the World Wide Web."

But those who oppose proposed bans or new criminal laws that prohibit online bomb-making data say that the Net is just another international communications medium like the telephone. Civil liberties groups, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have told Congress in the past that any such legislation would apply stricter content regulations to the Net than those applied to print media.

Retired Air Force general Bernard Schriever, who developed the country's first intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, submitted written testimony to the committee.

"When it comes to the development of ballistic missiles, it is my personal experience that increased range is actually quite simple to achieve. The more difficult problems are accuracy and integration," Schriever wrote. He said today's computers are simplifying the solutions to such challenges, which used to be executed using slide rules and vacuum-tube computers.

"A breathtaking amount of information is also available through open sources--particularly the Internet," he added. Any Net surfer can find weapons-designing shareware or patented drawings of bombs, Schriever said, which he called a "stark contrast to the relatively rudimentary base of capabilities" he had 40 years ago.

The Senate committee's witnesses aren't the first to be disturbed by the potential harm of bomb-making material on the Net. In July, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) introduced an amendment to the Defense Department's '98 spending bill that would make it a crime to publish online bomb-making instructions. The Senate unanimously passed the amendment, and the bill is now awaiting final approval by the House.

"It shall be unlawful for any person to distribute by any means of information pertaining to, in whole or part, the manufacture or use of an explosive, destructive device, or weapon of mass destruction," the amendment states.

Feinstein's effort was attacked by censorship opponents, who claim the same material could be found in books in many libraries.