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White House crypto controls make rounds

The Clinton administration is paving the way for mandatory controls on domestic encryption that may be offered up to Congress as early as tomorrow.

Despite public statements to the contrary, the Clinton administration is helping pave the way for mandatory controls on the domestic use of encryption through proposed legislation that may be offered up to Congress as early as tomorrow, according to staffers on Capitol Hill.

The proposal, which has been making the rounds for the last few weeks, closely resembles comments FBI director Louis Freeh made last Wednesday to a Senate subcommittee. (See related story.)

Among other things, the plan would require all encryption software available in the United States to contain backdoors that would allow law enforcers to read coded communications. It would also require ISPs and phone networks that provide encryption services to "enable the immediate decryption" of coded messages flowing over their systems.

U.S. law has long controlled the export of encryption--which scrambles email, computer files, and phone calls so they are unintelligible to eavesdroppers--but has never regulated domestic uses of the technology. Following Freeh's speech, the White House distanced itself from the FBI director's comments. (See related story.)

Despite the disavowal, the Clinton administration provided "technical assistance" in drafting the proposed legislation, according to a spokesman at the Commerce Department, which oversees encryption laws. "The administration is not circulating the bill," added the spokesman, Eugene Cottilli. "I don't know that they have a position until they know exactly what emerges."

However, MSNBC quotes Commerce Undersecretary William Reinsch as saying the administration would likely support any bill approved in Congress containing such domestic controls.

"It's a real radical departure" from the handful of encryption bills now pending in Congress, said James Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "It is the first full domestic regulation of encryption ever proposed."

As reported last week, the law would likely face a sling of legal challenges if passed. But its passage is not likely, according to staffers for two legislators supporting the rival Security and Encryption through Technology Act, which would loosen government control of encryption. The House bill has 252 sponsors and enjoys some support in the Senate.

Calling the competing crypto proposal now circulating in Capitol Hill a "lightning rod," one staffer said its chances of being approved were next to nil.

That doesn't mean it won't be offered up as an amendment to SAFE, which was authored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia). Indeed, three separate House committees will take up SAFE this week alone. Any one of those could vote to replace SAFE with the competing proposal, the staffers pointed out.

Two of the members of the House National Security Committee--chairman Floyd Spence (R-South Carolina) and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania)--are opposed to SAFE, making a markup tomorrow before that committee one possible source for a substitute offering.

Proponents of domestic controls landed a powerful ally when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) voiced her support last week. However, California legislators unanimously passed a resolution supporting SAFE.

White House representatives were not immediately available for comment.