The Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Thomas A. Constantine, a career cop, recently complained to Microsoft's Bill Gates, the world's richest man, that encryption devices sold by his company and used by international drug lords are so powerful that they cannot be deciphered by law enforcement. "Well," replied Gates, "you've got to get bigger computers."

That is reminiscent of Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake!" advice for bread-less French peasants. As Gates knows, no computer is big enough to break Microsoft's new codes. But the Senate and House Commerce committees last week approved bills to end export controls over encryption systems to which law enforcement and national security officials have no access. That would give drug cartels worry-free communications with U.S. operatives.

Constantine and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh are losing their battle to be able to decipher criminal communications under court order. High-tech campaign money is winning out. Sen. John McCain, seeking the GOP presidential nomination, last week guided anti-control legislation out of the Commerce Committee, which he heads. President Clinton is silent as Vice President Al Gore courts Silicon Valley in quest of the presidency.

Freeh and Constantine are desperate. Wiretapping is law enforcement's biggest weapon, authorized by court order 1,329 times nationwide in 1998 -- 72 percent of the time in drug cases. The DEA depends on eavesdropping.

But intercepted conversations now are interrupted by a steady buzz, signifying encryption. What experts call "level-one encryption" could be decoded, but the drug lords have turned to "level two."

"And we can't break it," Constantine said. "There's no big computer in Livermore (Calif.) or in New York City that you can take your staff to and say, `Take the buzz, and make it into words.' It's just that encryption is ahead of the power of the decrypt."

Freeh said, "The equivalent would be if a criminal had a safe where he kept evidence of his crime, and we convinced a judge that there was probable cause to believe the evidence, and we'd get the order to open the safe. But we can't open it. We don't have by brute force or any other technique the ability to get inside that safe." There is no use getting a court-ordered wiretap if drug lords can cloak their conversations.

Why would Congress cripple law enforcement? The pressure is coming not from legal users of encryption devices but from the high-tech manufacturers. Picture the contrast between 60-year-old Tom Constantine, who began his 39 years in police work as a deputy sheriff in Buffalo, and 44-year-old Bill Gates, whose net worth is calculated at $90 billion.

Constantine sees Gates and his Microsoft colleagues this way: "Their No. 1 concern is to make money. They don't live in a neighborhood where their mother is shot and killed by dope peddlers in a gang war. They live on an island in Seattle with guards, and they don't grasp that there are real people out there who get hurt by this stuff."

Constantine next week begins retirement, leaving behind a world where court-ordered wiretaps will be "a nullity because we can't serve them" on drug lords. "Nobody's told us what the alternatives are," he said. "They've told us there are a lot of reasons for this technique to go unchecked, but nobody has told us what the alternatives are. We don't know what we're supposed to do in the absence of these tools."

Law enforcers have a handful of allies on Capitol Hill led by Rep. Porter Goss of Florida, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. But if the legislation passes, the FBI and the DEA will recommend a veto, with no certainty of success. Unless the tide turns, the U.S. government is about to hand the drug cartels an incomparable advantage as they spread their poison through America.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.