[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

FBI Wants to Wiretap One of Every 100 Phones in Urban Areas

FBI Wants to Wiretap One of Every 100 Phones in
Urban Areas


Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The FBI wants the capability to simultaneously tap one 
every 100 phone and data transmission lines in major urban centers, but a 
Justice Department official said there are no plans to expand the existing 
of wiretaps.

As part of its effort to deal with a new breed of computer-savvy criminals 
at using new telecommunications technologies, the FBI said it wants phone
companies to initially set aside 0.5 percent, or one of every 200 lines, 
for law
enforcement use in high-crime urban areas. But it added it also wants the 
to rapidly expand that capability to one of every 100 lines if the need 
arises. The
disclosure was made in a little-noticed announcement in the Federal 

Despite the notice, Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick said today, 
"There is
no intention to expand the number of wiretaps or the extent of wiretapping 
.. . I
don't think the American people should be worried about that."

Last year, federal and state courts authorized 1,154 wiretaps, of which 48 
were sought by federal agents. Increases in recent years have mostly come 
drug trafficking cases. Gorelick acknowledged: "As we've gotten more 
in the drug war, as organized gang activity has been an increased focus 
for us,
we've seen a slight increase."

The FBI proposal, unveiled on three pages of the thick daily compendium of
federal regulations and other government activities for Oct. 16, had been 
anticipated since the passage last year of the Communications Assistance 
for Law
Enforcement Act.

"The entire purpose of the digital telephony legislation was to leave law
enforcement in the same position it is now with respect to wiretaps: That 
is, to
ensure that emerging digital technology would not defeat current lawful
wiretaps," Gorelick said, noting that court approval would still be 
required for
any wiretap. "There appears to be some misunderstanding or 
as to the implications of what is contained in that notice."

But experts familiar with the law did not expect the FBI's reach into the 
new fiber optic cables, digital switches and high-speed modems for 
business transactions as well as voices to be so sweeping.

"The level of capacity that the FBI is proposing here would come as a 
surprise to
many who supported the legislation," said James X. Dempsey, deputy 
director of
the Center for National Security Studies, a group that monitors government
surveillance activities.

While the federal notice does not specify which cities would be targeted, 
said New York is likely to be one of them. Assuming there are 2 million 
phone and data transmission lines there, that means the FBI wants the 
ability to
tap 20,000 of them simultaneously, he said.

"People are starting to say that seems awfully high," Dempsey said, noting 
the overall level of such surveillance activity is now a total of 20,000 
to 25,000
intercepts nationwide over an entire year.

The FBI said in its official notice that its capability needs were based 
on "an
historical baseline of electronic surveillance activity" after surveying 
state and local courts, prosecutors and police agencies.

It did not offer a further explanation, but during hearings over the past 
years leading to passage of the 1994 law, FBI and other officials cited 
growing incidence of computer-based crimes.

The law was intended to remove what law enforcement officials have 
a major impediment - the growing obsolescence of the copper phone wire - 
probing drug trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, kidnaping and 
new types of white-collar crime.

"Without this bill ... we would have been completely prevented in a very 
time from carrying out any court-approved wiretapping," FBI Director Louis
Freeh said at the time.

While law enforcement officers will still have to get court approval for 
wiretaps they install, the technological measures authorized by the law 
remove the objections of some judges.

Copper telephone lines were relatively easy to tap because they carried 
only one
conversation. But digital switches and fiber optics now in growing use 
often carry
hundreds of conversations or data transmissions at the same time, making 
difficult to isolate a single phone line.

The law authorized $500 million for the government to pay the phone 
their cost in installing the necessary technology, but none of the money 
has been

And with increased criticism focused on the FBI for its role in the 1993 
Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, and the 1992 deadly standoff against white
separatist Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, there is no assurance 
will be forthcoming with the money.

Legislation sent by President Clinton to Congress seeking greater wiretap
authority in the wake of the April bombing of the federal building in 
City is languishing in congressional committees and is given little 
prospect of
being passed this year.