The FBI Party Line

Wiretaps often aren’t cheap–or effective

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


In order to quash terrorist threats, Bill Clinton says, law enforcement officers will have to snoop more.

It turns out they’re at least one step ahead of him. State and federal agents installed 1,154 wiretaps and bugs last year, an 18 percent increase over 1993. That may be the biggest jump ever in one year, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in Washington, D.C. Poor police reporting means the numbers are probably even higher.

Clinton’s counterterrorism proposal would let agents use electronic surveillance for all federal felonies, not just the extreme cases presently specified (such as kidnapping and drug trafficking). Illegal taps also could be used as courtroom evidence, if police act in “good faith.”

But while wiretaps occasionally earn high-profile praise, as in the World Trade Center bombing, more typical is a case like the 1992 Fat Cats BBQ case in Tampa, Fla. Detectives wasted a month and $106,000 bugging a restaurateur’s home and work phones, hoping to gather information about a small-time marijuana ring. The man was eventually arrested (but not because of the wiretaps).

That same year, the state agency covering Tampa mistakenly reported only 18 wiretaps to federal regulators, when they really recorded 38. Even that figure is dubious, since local police agencies fail to keep proper records.

Meanwhile, last year’s Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act gives the FBI $500 million in taxes to divvy up between telephone companies to make their systems more tap-able. So while phone companies gain free upgraded equipment, and police get to bug more, the taxpayers get stuck with the bill, roughly $50,000 a tap.

And the criminals? Most will know to use the pay phone around the corner.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate