The collapse of an indictment against a suspected computer hacker and newsletter publisher came under congressional scrutiny this week, with a Senate subcommittee chairman wondering if the government is going too far in prosecuting hackers.

"It {the case} seemed a tad severe to me," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Tuesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing on his bill to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, the law under which an indictment of the computer newsletter publisher had been issued.

The government had accused Craig Neidorf, a computer newsletter publisher, of interstate transportation of a stolen BellSouth Corp. document describing its emergency 911 system.

Leahy cited Neidorf as an example of the kind of hacker who shouldn't be the target of the 1986 act.

Leahy has introduced legislation that would amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 by extending its protection to any computer used in interstate commerce or communications. The bill also would punish users for "reckless disregard" of the effects of damaging, disrupting, changing or stealing computer information or programs.

The government last Friday dismissed the charges against Neidorf, a move seen by many computer industry observers as a setback to the nationwide prosecution of hackers.

The dismissal came five days into the trial after the defense presented evidence that the information Neidorf had electronically transported across state lines was publicly available.

Both Sheldon Zenner, Neidorf's attorney, and Joan Safford, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Chicago office, said they could not recall the government dismissing a case once it had begun.

"As far as I can tell, all he did was republish the document in Phrack {Neidorf's newsletter}" said Leahy, chairman of the subcommittee on technology and the law.

"That's not a heck of a lot different than someone walking down the street who picks up a document and writes a letter to the editor," Leahy said. "It's one thing to go after whoever broke into the computer. It's another to go after a kid who took a letter and published it.

"This whole thing really bothered me. A lot of people are going to get nervous if innocent passersby get caught in the {government's} net."

Neidorf, a 20-year-old political science major at the University of Missouri, might have been one of those had the U.S. attorney's office not done what Zenner called "the honorable thing" and dropped all charges.

The government reached that decision after Zenner, a former prosecutor, showed that the information BellSouth contended was proprietary could be ordered for $13 by calling an 800 number. The indictment put its value at $79,449.

"We did not have correct information from BellSouth," Safford said. "It became clear that the information BellSouth said were trade secrets was in fact generally available to the public."

Safford said the government then had no choice but to dismiss its case.

According to Zenner, Neidorf is contemplating a lawsuit against BellSouth and BellCore, its research laboratory.

"We weren't aware that this information was publicly available," said a government source who requested anonymity. "We're pretty disappointed about this. We'll have to review our relationship with these people if this continues."

Scott Ticer, a BellSouth spokesman, said the company presented its information honestly and that the stolen 911 information is proprietary.

"We know that people work very hard to create products with their computers," Leahy said. "They ought to be able to protect those. At the same time, I don't want to see the mass resources of the United States Department of Justice turned loose on things that don't make that much difference {in damaging to computers}."