On Capitol Hill, most bills die young, smothered in their cribs by partisanship, philosophical differences or simple lack of money.

But even with the president's blessing, there's no guarantee a law will achieve its authors' high-minded aims. Some languish in the statute books, unworkable and unused.

That could be the fate awaiting the Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act -- at least a key part of it.

Passed last year, the measure calls for a National Emergency Technology (NET) Guard -- a group of tech-savvy volunteers to prevent, or at least mimimize, the sort of network gridlock that added to the confusion and fear the morning of Sept. 11.

"It is essential to ensure that America's anti-terrorism efforts tap the tremendous science and technology talents of the private sector," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a floor speech last July.

In early December, Wyden's spokeswoman said it might take a year before the program was running. But now, five months later, nothing has been done, and there's a real possibility nothing ever will be.

The Difference Between Shall and May

Though there are a slew of practical reasons NET Guard has not progressed, the mechanism enabling inaction is contained in the bill's language.

In a town where the definition of "is" has been parsed, phrasing is paramount. Imprecision yanks the teeth from criminal law, opens gaping and unintended loopholes in tax law, and in this case, allows an agency to opt-out of administrative law.

"The law says that our department may enact a system like NET Guard, it doesn't actually require it," said David Wray, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security Department, which is charged with overseeing NET Guard.

The statute says the president "shall" pick a department to keep a list of volunteers, but two paragraphs later says DHS "may" decide to organize them in regional teams and help them contact each other.

Since it's unclear if NET Guard will even be formed, there is no effort to recruit volunteers, and no database to maintain.

"We are looking at it but we have an awful lot to do and have to do," said Wray, adding that the war with Iraq has caused DHS to focus on issues other than NET Guard.

"Conceptually NET Guard has a lot of appeal," said John L. Williams, co-founder and CTO of Preventsys, a Carlsbad, Calif., network security firm. "Say I'm a guy on commercial side of house, I exist to make money, but there's a new world out there where terrorists attack national interests -- and I can do something about it."

Williams cites Howard Schmidt's recent move from Microsoft executive to White House cybersecurity chief, as an example of this new, or perhaps rediscovered public spirit.

Please see page 2 for other hurdles.