Group Objects to FBI E-mail Release

Thursday, August 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — A civil liberties group objects to how the FBI plans to release to the public some of the 3,000 pages of documents describing its ``Carnivore'' e-mail surveillance system.

The group says the schedule laid out by the government is too open-ended.

The Justice Department told a federal judge Wednesday that the FBI had located 3,000 pages in response to a Freedom of Information request and lawsuit by the group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which asked for every document the FBI has describing the computerized system that has raised an uproar among civil libertarians and in Congress.

The government said the FBI could release the first batch of documents in about 45 days. Additional releases should follow every 45 days until all the pages have been evaluated for release. But the Justice Department and the FBI gave no commitment to either process or to release any specific number of pages in each interval.

``The proposed schedule is far too open-ended,'' complained David Sobel, general counsel of the group. ``With no clear commitment to evaluate a specific number of pages in each interval, this process could stretch on for many months or even years.''

At her weekly news conference Thursday, Attorney General Janet Reno declined to predict how long the entire process might take. ``There's some 3,000 pages that we have got to go through, and we want to do it as expeditiously as possible but we want to do it properly,'' she said.

The department told U.S. District Judge James Robertson in a written status report that the government has begun reviewing the pages to see if any should be withheld as classified information.

Next, a large number of the pages would have to be reviewed by private companies that supplied them under contract to see if they objected, the government added. The companies can prevent release of their trade secrets.

In response to protests over Carnivore, Attorney General Janet Reno has promised that it will be reviewed by an external team assembled by a major university and by an internal team, which hopes to report to her by Dec. 1.

The Carnivore system has software that scans and captures ``packets,'' the standard unit of Internet traffic, as they travel through an internet service provider's network. The FBI installs a Carnivore unit at a provider's network station and configures it to capture only e-mail to or from someone under investigation.

FBI officials say court orders limit which e-mails they can see.

But privacy advocates say only the FBI knows what Carnivore can do, and Internet providers are not allowed access to the system. They ask why the FBI retains remote control of Carnivore equipment and doesn't just give it to Internet providers so they can comply with court orders.

Sobel said he would likely seek modifications in the government's plan from the court.

``We will point out to the court that Dec. 1 is the date their review is to be completed,'' Sobel said in an interview. ``If they can pull these documents together for their expert panel, they can pull them together for the FOIA process. Making this material public should have the same priority as their review.''

The government said it was expediting the request ``without respect to the FBI's current backlog of FOIA requests.'' It also said that it has waived fees for the processing. The law and regulations provide that fees be waived and processing expedited when there is wide public interest in the requested documents.

But the government warned that ``review of these documents will be more complex than most FBI Freedom of Information-Privacy Act requests because, among other things, a large amount of responsive material ... (was) supplied, under contract, by outside commercial entities. These outside commercial entities will, under existing laws and regulations, need to be notified and given an opportunity to weigh in on the disclosure of their information.''


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