Fascinating live television the public will never see Closed-circuit system will foil eavesdropping on Clinton's testimony

August 17, 1998|By Geoffrey C. Upton | Geoffrey C. Upton,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's testimony this afternoon to a federal grand jury could be the best live television of the year.

Unfortunately, unless you're one of the 23 grand jurors, you won't see or hear a word of it. That's because Clinton's testimony will be broadcast over closed-circuit TV, via a system that experts say will be capable of foiling even the most determined eavesdroppers.

"Is somebody going to jump in [to listen]? I doubt it very seriously," said Jack Mogus, a director of Nova Security Services, a Virginia investigative agency. "But there are going to be 10,000 people trying."

The White House said the one-way audio-video transmission will be handled by the White House Communications Agency. But it has not disclosed exactly how Clinton's words and images will travel from one place to the other -- whether they will be carried in the air by radio waves, beamed off a satellite in space or transmitted under the streets of Washington by fiber optic cable.

However the testimony is transmitted, experts say, would-be hackers can expect to be disappointed. If Clinton's testimony does leak, it will likely be the usual way -- from sources whispering the information to reporters -- rather than from a lapse in the transmission, said Mark Rosenker of the Electronic Industries Alliance, a trade group.

"The weakest link is not the technology. The technology will do its job," Rosenker said. "I would bet a lot of money that nothing's going to get out in the entire system of transmission. Once it's played in that courtroom, that's another story."

Clinton's testimony will be delivered live from the White House Map Room to the federal courthouse, 10 blocks away. The testimony will be taped, with representatives of the independent counsel's office, if not necessarily Kenneth W. Starr himself, on hand. Clinton will have three lawyers by his side for legal advice.

Several telecommunications experts suggested that the transmission will occur via a fiber optic cable linking the White House to the courtroom. Under such a setup, the video and audio feed would be converted at the White House into digital signals -- essentially a series of 1s and 0s that produces only a hissing noise on radio receivers. Those signals would then be transmitted as bursts of light along a glass fiber no thicker than a human hair.

A fiber optic cable could have been laid from the White House to the court expressly for Clinton's testimony, through existing government tunnels or public phone tunnels. It is possible -- though less likely, for security reasons -- that the testimony will be carried over public fiber optic lines.

Susan Buttah, a spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic, would not describe the company's role in the transmission. But she said, "Because it's local communication, of course we're involved."

It is difficult to intercept data passing through fiber optic cables without setting off alarms, experts said. If the glass cable is broken, sensors can identify the precise location, making it easy to apprehend the interceptor.

The only way to break in safely is to remove some of the reflective material on the outside of the fiber and twist the fiber, letting the light signals escape. But this process requires skill and specialized tools and can easily result in detection. And the price is high: Intercepting private communications carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Still, some experts said they would favor placing station guards at every point along the fiber optic line at which access is possible.

"Any place where the fiberglass could be approached, somebody should be there just in case," said James A. Ross, president of the Ross Group, a Virginia investigative firm.

Yet even if an eavesdropper knew which fiber optic cable was carrying the testimony, broke into it undetected, diverted the digital signals and converted them to analog format, all he would get would be electronic gobbledygook. After all, experts agreed, Clinton's testimony is sure to be encrypted at the White House -- shredded into bits completely indecipherable to anyone but those at the courthouse in possession of the "key" to put the bits back together.

Assuming that the White House has access to the most sophisticated encryption techniques, even if a hacker possessed the most advanced decoding technology, it could take years for the code to be broken.

Mogus likened the likelihood of breaking the code to the chance of a group of chimpanzees typing out "King Lear" on typewriters.

"It's a possibility," Mogus said. "But Clinton'll be long dead and buried before it ever happens."

All the same, said Rosenker, "What's funny to me is the amazing feats [the White House is] going through, the work they're putting in" to make the transmission secure, when the testimony is likely to be leaked to reporters later today anyway.

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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