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IP: ISPI Clips 5.49: More on The FBI's New Wiretap Authority
From: "ama-gi ISPI" <[email protected]>
Subject: IP: ISPI Clips 5.49: More on The FBI's New Wiretap Authority
Date: Sat, 17 Oct 1998 00:01:14 -0700
To: <[email protected]>
ISPI Clips 5.49: More on The FBI's New Wiretap Authority
News & Info from the Institute for the Study of Privacy Issues (ISPI)
Saturday October 17, 1998
This From: ABC News.com, October 13, 1998
Taps For Privacy?
Investigators Can Follow Suspects From Phone To Phone
Buried deep inside the Intelligence Authorization Act of 1999 is a
provision that will change the way the FBI and other law enforcement
agencies can listen to suspects’ phone calls. The new rule opens the doors
for more “roving” wiretaps, which listen to all the phones a suspect uses
rather than just a single line.
Supporters say this will help the cops keep up with cell-phone
wielding crooks. Critics contend that it opens the door for ever more
invasions of privacy.
The bill passed the House and Senate last week; President Clinton is
expected to sign it soon. A similar change was voted down in 1996 as part
of an anti-terrorism measure.
An Invitation to Abuse?
To bug a suspect, investigators must first obtain a court order. Current
federal wiretapping law allows multiple taps only if law enforcement can
convince a judge that a suspect is trying to avoid being overheard. The new
bill, introduced by Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), requires only that
investigators show probable cause that “the person’s actions could have the
effect of thwarting interception.”
Supporters maintain that such a change is necessary to keep up with
exploding technology. Suspects whose lines are tapped can easily switch to
a pay phone or cell phone and avoid detection.
But Leslie Hagin, legislative director of the National Association of
Criminal Defense Lawyers, echoes the sentiments of many criminal defense
attorneys and civil libertarians who feel that the expansion of powers is
an invitation to abuse: “It’s not a power the government needs.”
Defense attorneys such as Gregory Nicolaysen, founder of the
Association of Federal Defense Attorneys, complain that too many judges
rubber-stamp wiretapping requests and that the new law will only make that
situation worse: “The assumption is that those who are being wiretapped are
“It’s not being confined to drug dealers and organized crime,”
Nicolaysen argues. “It tends to be a knee-jerk reaction instead of an
investigative tool of last resort.”
The Phones Have Ears
According to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, federal
and state judges approved 1,186 wiretap applications in 1997 and 1,094 bugs
were planted. No requests were denied last year. Judges have rejected only
28 of over 20,000 applications since wiretapping was legalized in 1968.
Authorities arrested 3,086 people in 1997 with the help of phone taps,
which are typically placed in homes.
The American Civil Liberties Union says that for every wiretap placed,
nearly a thousand innocent conversations are intercepted by law
enforcement. According to ACLU legislative counsel Greg Nojeim, the new
bill will mean that the phones of a suspect’s friends, family and business
colleagues can all be tapped by law enforcement: “It means more wiretaps,
more lines tapped and additional thousands of intercepted innocent
The FBI says snoops have to ignore conversations that aren’t relevant
to their investigations. “Under existing wiretap statutes,” says special
agent Barry Smith, “law enforcement is only authorized to listen to those
conversations that are related to criminal activity.”
Nojeim argues that since roving wiretaps will be easier to obtain,
citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights protecting against illegal searches will
erode. “When the government wants to search a place, it has to specify the
place it wants to search,” he says. “Now for electronic surveillance the
specificity requirement is done away with.”
Smith says a hefty increase in roving wiretaps is unlikely, since such
an operation requires a team of surveillance experts who must coordinate
their efforts with several different phone companies: “It’s still a
technological and logistical nightmare.”
Whether one believes that the new bill represents an invasion of
privacy, it seems clear that crooks won’t be able to escape to their cell
phones much longer without fear of being overheard.
Copyright (c)1998 ABCNEWS
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