WASHINGTON (AP) -- A plan to relax restrictions on the export of U.S. technology that scrambles computer messages into unbreakable codes would threaten national security, an official of the National Security Agency told lawmakers Wednesday.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would leave law enforcement agencies without a way to eavesdrop on lawbreakers who use encryption technology to commit crime, said William P. Crowell, deputy director of the supersecret Defense Department agency.
"The Goodlatte bill would undermine international efforts to catch terrorists, spies and drug traffickers", Crowell said. "Quite simply, such efforts save American lives and protect our free society."
The bill has been approved by the House Judiciary and International Relations committees. It also has drawn support from 253 cosponsors -- more than enough to pass the 435-member House.
Supporters say it's nonsensical to keep all current restrictions on U.S. companies in place while foreign companies sell their products without restriction.
America's computer dominance will be protected, Goodlatte said, and the bill would deter crime by making business transactions, computer records and other communications more secure.
"One thing we can do to promote national security is to promote the availability of strong encryption to law-abiding people and organizations", Goodlatte said, adding that law enforcement agencies would be no worse off than they are today.
"Encryption is going to become available to criminals whether or not this legislation passes into law", Goodlatte said.
The Goodlatte bill got a chilly reception from lawmakers who sit on the National Security Committee, however.
"I do not think this bill moves us in the right direction", said Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa. "I'm not totally happy with the way we're regulating this industry", he said. "But I cannot imagine what the consequences would be if we totally remove the restrictions on encryption technology."
The Business Software Alliance, representing software companies, has lobbied passionately for the bill, saying it would allow U.S. encryption producers to compete with foreign businesses.
Encryption technology is sold now without restriction inside the United States.
In an effort to keep pace with technology advancing at a rapid pace, the Clinton administration relaxed export controls last year. The computer industry complained that change did not go far enough.
Administration officials have asked Congress to reject the bill and instead set up a system that would give developers of encryption technology incentives to make "keys" -- devices that can unscramble their codes -- available to law enforcement during criminal investigations.
As with wiretaps, authorities would have to obtain court orders to use the keys, FBI Director Louis Freeh has said.
Weldon said he would make it his personal mission to better educate fellow lawmakers on the issue. He said he thinks many of the bill's cosponsors don't fully understand it.
"I think lots of my colleagues have been sold a bill of goods", Weldon said.