Civil Liberties

Sorry, Wrong Number

Truly roving wiretaps.


Have the feds been snooping on you by mistake? That was the specter raised by a September 2005 report from the Justice Department's inspector general, which found that an undisclosed number of monitored telecommunications picked up conversations between people who were not remotely under suspicion.

Under the PATRIOT Act, the FBI has unprecedented authority to eavesdrop on all phone and Internet communications of individual American citizens, as long as agents obtain approval from a secret court. In 2004, 1,745 such warrants were issued. DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine zeroed in on the backlog of untranslated foreign-language conversations–38,514 hours' worth, or about 4.4 years of recordings–and found that an unspecified number were "collections of materials from the wrong sources due to technical problems."

Neither Fine nor the FBI would say what percentage of taps were erroneous, and both blamed the mistakes on phone companies. According to law, the FBI has to report the wrong numbers to the secret court that authorized the warrant, and it can't build a new investigation on the ill-gotten data.

The roving wiretap authorization was one of the few provisions in the original PATRIOT Act that was not made permanent last summer. The House of Representatives' version of the act's reauthorization has the wiretap power expiring after 10 years, while the Senate gives it just four.?