US lawmakers want to enlist scientists and technlogy experts into a volunteer defense corps similar to the military’s National Guard to protect the nation’s communications systems from terrorists.

The US Senate on Friday approved legislation to create the National Emergency Technology Guard, teams of experts available to prevent and respond to terror attacks on the nation’s communications infrastructure.

The bill, known as the Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act, also establishes a government agency to coordinate the sharing of security technology and authorizes 35 million dollars in grants to create emergency communications programs.

The bill also provides for the creation of a “virtual technology reserve” of privately-owned equipment that can be loaned to authorities in an emergency.

“This legislation takes us another step closer to the vital technological improvements that are necessary to upgrade the security in our state, local and federal services, and it taps the reservoir of goodwill among the American people to provide solutions,” said Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia, who co-sponsored the bill with Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon.

The House of Representatives has approved a similar plan as part of a homeland security package, and now the two legislative bodies must agree on a common approach before sending the bill to President George W. Bush for final approval.

US officials have expressed concern about possible terror attacks against the nation’s information infrastructure by militants linked to those responsible for September 11 suicide attacks that killed some 3,000 people.

Federal Bureau of Investgation agents have reportedly found evidence that the al-Qaeda militant group — blamed for the September 11 attacks — has searched the Internet for ways to control digital switches for power, water, transport and communications systems.

Earlier this month, the security firm Riptech reported that the number of Internet attacks so far this year was up 64 percent from a year ago, with some of the incidents showing “very advanced hackers.”

The study detected potential cyberterrorism activity from countries where conventional terrorists are known to be harbored or recruited, including Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Kuwait, and Indonesia, the study found.

But it noted that 80 percent of all attacks originated from only 10 countries: the United States, Germany, South Korea, China, France, Canada, Italy, Taiwan, Britain and Japan.

In a November report, the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center said cyber protests from friendly nations and misdirected attacks from pro-US hackers also threatened communications systems.

During hearings on the Senate bill in April, one information security expert warned lawmakers of the risk of troublemakers infiltrating the volunteer “technology guard.”

“If we don’t verify both the technical credibility and the personal background of individuals, we risk doing more harm than good,” said Lance Hoffman, a computer science professor at George Washington University.