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On Display at HP Hearing, Many Ways to Say 'Shocking'

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) chose
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) chose "horribly offensive" to describe the actions of Hewlett-Packard executives. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 29, 2006

The corporate spying scandal at Hewlett-Packard was so shocking that lawmakers had trouble even describing it as they grilled company executives yesterday.

"As I reviewed all of the documents for this hearing today, I felt like I was looking at a proposal for a made-for-TV movie," announced Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) at the start of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing into HP's use of "pretexting" to get phone records.

On the contrary, said Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), HP's wrongdoing "unfolded like the plot of a third-rate detective novel."

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) had a different take. "Calling the folks who did or allowed or participated in this Keystone Kops is an insult of the grossest sort to the original Keystone Kops," he said.

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) took Dingell's objection into account. "The evidence we've seen shows that this investigation is part 'Keystone Kops,' it's part 'Mission: Impossible,' and perhaps part of 'All the President's Men' all tied together," he proposed.

Perhaps, but it put Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in the mind of "Hogan's Heroes." "HP might be suffering from Sergeant Schultz syndrome," he diagnosed, referring to the rotund concentration-camp guard remembered for the refrain "I know noth -ing!"

When it comes to technology, Congress is frequently a mouse click behind the times. Not long ago, the Senate commerce committee chairman, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), sagely declared that the Internet is "not a truck; it's a series of tubes." The difficulty grappling with technology surfaced again yesterday in two simultaneous House hearings.

As they probed HP in the Rayburn Building, lawmakers argued among themselves about whether pretexting -- using a phony identity to gain access to personal records -- is actually illegal. Or, as Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) put it: "Pretexting is pretending to be somebody you're not to get something you probably shouldn't have to use in a way that's probably wrong." The lawmakers were united in wondering why a bill making pretexting illegal, which the committee passed unanimously five months ago, still hasn't been taken up by the full House.

Next door in the Longworth Building, the House Administration Committee assembled to watch a Princeton computer scientist hack into electronic voting machines -- the same machines that counties across the country spent billions of dollars on to satisfy new standards imposed by Congress.

The computer wiz, an appropriately geeky academic named Edward Felten, demonstrated how, by dipping a virus-tainted voting card into a Diebold voting machine, he could reverse the results in a theoretical election pitting George Washington against Benedict Arnold.

"Every record in the machine is consistent with this fraudulent result," said Felten, claiming he got the key to the voting machine from a jukebox supply company. The professor repeated the demonstration at a news conference after the hearing. "There is really no limit to the amount of mischief that could be done," he said.

But lawmakers couldn't be too outraged. They were the ones who, reacting to Florida's paper-ballot fiasco in 2000, passed a law in 2002 giving jurisdictions $3 billion to buy new equipment full of bugs. "What we've got on our hands here is a Model T Ford," said Keith Cunningham, an Ohio elections official. "Can it be improved? Absolutely. [But] who's going to pay to fix it?"


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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