Less Than Half of Wiretap Arrests Result in Convictions

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U.S. court records show that, over the last 10 years, only about 41 percent of arrests from court-approved wiretaps have led to convictions. Some 90 percent of those cases dealt with narcotics, with only a minute portion involving conspiracy. It isn’t clear from the report if the conspiracy charges deal with the government’s endless “war on terror.”

The federal government conducts its “terror war” surveillance primarily through the National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and wiretaps remain unreported to the American public who pays for them, and is even included in the government’s surveillance.

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The director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, Thomas F. Hogan, in late June issued his “Wiretap Report 2011,” noting in one chart that, from 2001 to 2011, 70,490 arrests have occurred. So far, there have been 29,101 convictions. Because the arrest/trial process may often take a year or more, most of those cases are decided within the first three years, with a majority concluded in the second year. For example, for 2001, 2,620 of the 2,947 convictions came from 2001 to 2003.

For 2011, of the 2,732 court-authorized “intercepts,” or wiretaps granted, 2,334 were narcotics-related. Only five involved conspiracy.

Also, for 2011, 2,034 of the intercepts reported their costs, which came to an average of $49,629. That adds up to $100.9 million. And doesn’t include nearly 700 other court-approved wiretap investigations in which costs were not reported.

“The wiretap report now represents a very small slice of modern surveillance,” Chris Soghoian, a privacy researcher for the Open Society Foundations, told Forbes in a July 2 story that noted Soghoian’s most recent work has focused on lack of accountability in law enforcement surveillance.

“The fact is that over the years, law enforcement has embraced new methods and new sources of data. The reporting requirements haven’t kept up,” Soghoian added.

The NSA expanded surveillance under George W. Bush’s order, bypassing primary electronic surveillance legislation, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed in 1978, and instead handling surveillance in secrecy.

In 2008, Congress overhauled FISA “to bring federal statutes into closer alignment with what the Bush administration had been secretly doing,” according to The New York Times. “The legislation essentially legalized certain aspects of the program.”

The Times has also reported:

As a senator then [2008], Barack Obama voted in favor of the new law, despite objections from many of his supporters. President Obama’s administration now relies heavily on such surveillance in its fight against Al Qaeda. It has also been working to revamp the rules for wiretapping to meet what they see as new technological challenges.

For one thing, the administration wants Congress to require all services that enable communications – including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype – to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. It is also working to increase legal incentives and penalties aimed at pushing carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast to ensure that any network changes will not disrupt their ability to conduct wiretaps.

Obama signed an updated four-year extension of the federal Patriot Act in May 2011.

“The provisions allow authorities to use roving wiretaps to track an individual on several telephones; track a non-US national suspected of being a “lone-wolf” terrorist not tied to an extremist group; and to seize personal or business records or “any tangible thing” seen as critical to an investigation,” according to Agence France-Presse.

The Forbes July 2 story also included a graphic showing federal government requests for Google data: