Washington The White House is proposing an Internetwide monitoring center to detect and defend against major cyber-attacks, but the Bush administration sought Friday to ease worries it might scrutinize individual users' e-mails along with other data traffic.
Some Internet industry executives and lawyers said they would raise serious civil liberties concerns if the U.S. government, not an industry consortium, operated such a powerful monitoring center. Such a proposal would require congressional approval.
Under federal wiretap laws, privately operated centers can in some circumstances analyze e-mails and other data flowing across parts of the Internet without approvals from a judge.
President Bush's top cyberspace adviser, Richard Clarke, on Friday strongly disputed concerns about government broadly eavesdropping on citizen e-mails. Clarke wrote there was "nothing ... which in any way suggests or proposes a government system that could extend to monitoring individuals' e-mails."
Clarke sent the letter to Harris Miller, the head of a prominent trade group, the Washington-based Information Technology Association of America. He said the White House plan "articulates a strong policy of protecting citizens' privacy in cyberspace."
The industry's fears appeared to stem from a subtle change between an earlier proposal and one currently circulated within the administration as part of its forthcoming "National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace," set for release early next year.
The latest draft, parts of which were obtained by The Associated Press, envisions a monitoring center to "analyze and exchange data about attacks that could prevent exploits from escalating and causing damage or disruption of vital systems."
It said the center "could be operated by the private sector but could share information with the federal government through the Department of Homeland Security."
The administration's earlier proposal, released in September as a draft for public comment, acknowledged explicitly that such a monitoring center "would not be a government entity and would be managed by a private board."
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Friday that the administration still envisioned that any such monitoring operation would be run by the private sector.
"The latest proposal seems to make this more aggressive, put the government in charge of it," said Stewart Baker, a Washington lawyer who represents the U.S. Internet Service Provider Assn.
"It's not envisioned as an all-purpose intercept tool, but as soon as you put the capability in the government's hands to run a network operations center, you're putting in their hands the ability to get to who's talking to whom, what information is going from one company to another, one computer to another," Baker said.