Ooops! Maybe 'Carnivore' Was Too Meaty...

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Depend on the FBI to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Just as the bureau was about to emerge from the cloud of Waco, leaks disclosed the existence of a powerful FBI-designed e-mail sniffing software code-named Carnivore.

The name conjured up images of a razor-fanged software program gnawing through millions of Internet e-mails and collecting any with keywords like "explosion" or "drugs." Thus, so the speculation went, an overheated lover who messaged, "You hit my heart with a mega-ton of dynamite — let's escape for more ecstasy tonight," might find the feds on his trail. House Judiciary chairman Henry Hyde and Rep. Charles Canady, chairman of the Constitution subcommittee, alarmed at potential Cointelpro-type abuses — and possibly sensing a wedge issue to drive tech heads out of the Democratic camp — have scheduled a hearing for Monday.

At a press briefing late last week, FBI officials insisted the only thing Carnivore has bloodied is the bureau's reputation. They blame the politically incorrect name on a couple of FBI computer engineers who toil deep in the bowels of a classified facility on the tightly secured FBI Academy campus in Quantico, Va., and who were trying to convey that they had refined an older, less discriminating e-mail search program called Omnivore. The moniker was never run past Washington-based officials devoted to burnishing the bureau's image — and ducking trouble. "Yeah," one FBI official said glumly. "We're looking at the names of a lot of our projects right now from the perspective of if they're on the front page of the newspaper or the tips of people's tongues. This experience is sobering and we may think a little harder about it in the future." "The big guy," said another official, referring to FBI director Louis Freeh, "said knock this stuff off right now." Look for the next version of Carnivore to be named "Fido" or "Liberty" or, as one Freeh aide suggests, "Electronic Privacy Protection Program."

FBI computer specialists insist that Carnivore is actually a pussycat of a program. "The tool," or simply "it," as the program is now gingerly called, doesn't sweep the Internet for key words in text or subject line. Rather, deployed within an Internet service provider network known to be used by a criminal suspect, it searches out unique "authentication strings" — screen name, password, telephone number — that are generated whenever the suspect connects to the ISP. All the e-mails identified by those strings are downloaded to an FBI computer housed in a closed container at the ISP office. When the surveillance is over, the FBI computer returns to the field office. FBI officials say Carnivore is designed to protect the privacy rights of innocent friends and family members of a suspect. For example, it would zero in on in on Tony Soprano's e-mail orders to his henchmen while filtering out Carmela Soprano's gossip sessions with her sister and Tony Jr.'s visits to a Pokemon chat room. "This is a better minimization than what we do with headphones on a telephone tap," says one official.

Legally, Carnivore can't be deployed without a court order, same as a telephone wiretap. Before it goes to a federal judge, agents must come up with compelling arguments that the evidence to be collected is crucial and can't be acquired any other way. Then their warrant application must be personally reviewed and signed by the attorney general or one of her top assistants. Civil libertarians fear agents will ignore these hurdles, in practice and range freely through the Internet, but FBI officials say any agent found to deviate from the rules will be charged with a federal felony. "None of us want to be part of a conspiracy to misuse these capabilities. That's not the way we want to leave the FBI," says one top official.