WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- The House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday approved provisions to criminalize the possession of bioterrorism agents and removed a roadblock to certain law enforcement wiretaps.
The committee considered measures for inclusion in a larger anti-terrorism bill to soon go before the full House. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., the committee chairman, said the provisions are a bipartisan response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"In the coming days and weeks, this committee will continue its broader investigation into what it can do within its jurisdiction to help secure our nation's energy, to make sure our telecommunications systems are sound and effective, and make sure our health and other critical infrastructures are working and prepared to deal with any substantial threats," Tauzin said.
The first provision, the Bioterrorism Prevention Act of 2001, passed on a voice vote. The act would close several loopholes concerning dangerous biological substances, such as anthrax. Several committee members mentioned attempts by the Aum Shinryko cult to start an anthrax outbreak in Japan before the group released the nerve gas sarin in the Tokyo subway in 1995.
Currently, possessing hazardous materials such as anthrax and sarin is only illegal if intent is shown to use them as a weapon. The act would change that threshold to "reckless disregard for the public health," while giving the Health and Human Services Department the responsibility for registering all existing materials.
The HHS secretary could share registration information with law enforcement agents on a confidential basis. Failing to register materials or transferring them to an unregistered person, could lead to a prison term of up to five years.
The penalty for simply possessing materials recklessly would include a fine and prison terms up to a year. If the materials led to people being injured, the penalty would increase to 10 years; deaths from such actions would call for a life sentence.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., was among committee members calling for harsher punishment.
"I think it would be appropriate, with the other committees of jurisdiction, that if there is the use of a biological or chemical agent that the perpetrators get the death penalty," Shimkus said. "I don't believe that it's a deterrent, it's just simple justice."
Both Tauzin and Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, mentioned instances of citizens trying to obtain antibiotics and other treatments against a bioterror attack. Both said there is no reason for people to do so, given the ongoing government efforts to build national stockpiles to respond to an attack.
The committee's other action, which also passed on a voice vote, relates to the intersection of cable TV systems and law enforcement investigations. Currently, cable providers have difficulty responding to police requests for information on the services a subscriber uses, unless the subscriber has the chance to respond to the request in court.
This system is meant as a privacy protection for cable users, but would render worthless any wiretaps on cable Internet access or phone service. The provision clarifies existing law by allowing wiretaps without prior notice, but preserves the privacy rights regarding a user's video programming.