The FBI Party Line

Wiretaps often aren’t cheap–or effective

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


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.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest