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Local Police Want Right to Jam Wireless Signals

People use their cameras and cellphones to photograph the inaugural parade review stand on Pennsylvania Avenue before Inauguration Day.
People use their cameras and cellphones to photograph the inaugural parade review stand on Pennsylvania Avenue before Inauguration Day. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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Some federal agencies, including the FBI and the Secret Service, have standing authority to use jamming equipment or can request waivers from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department agency, when there is an imminent threat, a federal official said.

Jamming has been approved in the past for major events, ranging from State of the Union addresses to visits by certain foreign dignitaries, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the subject.

After transit bombings in Europe, the Department of Homeland Security reached an agreement in 2006 under the National Communications System with cellphone companies to voluntarily shut down service under certain circumstances, which could disable signals for areas ranging from a tunnel to an entire metropolitan region, a DHS official said.

Much of the controversy has been fueled by the growing demands from state and local governments.

In the District, corrections officials won permission from the FCC for a brief test of jamming technology at the D.C. jail last month, after citing the "alarming rate" of contraband phones being seized at prisons around the country.

"Cell phones are used by inmates to engage in highly pernicious behavior such as the intimidation of witnesses, coordination of escapes, and the conducting of criminal enterprises," D.C. corrections chief Devon Brown wrote to the federal agency.

The test has been put on hold because of a legal challenge, but the city will keep seeking permission, said D.C. Attorney General Peter J. Nickles.

Texas prison officials made a similar request last fall after a death row inmate placed an illicit call threatening a state legislator, and South Carolina corrections officials said their department staged a test without permission in November.

In a pilot project, the FBI deputized about 10 local bomb squads across the country in 2007 so they could use a small number of radio jammers similar to the military equipment used overseas.

The local pleas for expanded permission are beginning to get a friendly reception on Capitol Hill. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, plans to introduce legislation that would give law enforcement agencies "the tools they need to selectively jam" communications in the event of a terrorist attack, a spokeswoman said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee, has introduced a bill that would allow the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and governors to seek waivers from the FCC to jam calling at prisons.

"When lives are at stake, law enforcement needs to find ways to disrupt cellphones and other communications in a pinpointed way against terrorists who are using them," New York City Police Commissioner Raymond F. Kelly told a Senate panel Jan. 8. He also cited the Mumbai terrorist attacks, when hostage-takers used media spotters and satellite and mobile phones to help them outmaneuver police at hotels, train stations and other targets.


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