The FBI Party Line

Wiretaps often aren't cheap--or effective

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."

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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.

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