FBI Scurries to Explain Its New Plan for Wiretaps Amid Outcry

From Times staff and wire reports

The FBI scrambled to explain a new wiretapping proposal Thursday after a notice about it in the Federal Register produced an outcry from citizen watchdog groups, which claimed that the plan smacked of Big Brotherism.

While Justice Department officials said that the proposal had been misunderstood, an official of the Center for National Security Studies said that the Justice Department had failed to make it clear.

The Oct. 16 edition of the Register, which carries proposed and final federal regulations, contained a complicated, technical explanation of changes that the FBI wants telephone companies to make.

The changes, often in computer programming, are designed to preserve law enforcement’s ability to wiretap as telephones are switched from analog, copper-wire technology to computer-controlled, digital communications over fiber-optic lines.


The analog lines carry only one conversation, making them relatively simple to tap. But newer digital communications over fiber-optic lines carry hundreds of scrambled conversations at the same time, requiring special computer programs to tap a single line.

The FBI was concerned that its ability to conduct criminal investigations would be hampered by new telecommunications equipment.

A New York Times story Thursday, that was subsequently picked up by wire services and appeared in the Los Angeles Times, said that the FBI proposal would amount to a national wiretapping system of unprecedented size and scope that would give law enforcement the capacity to monitor as many as one of every 100 phone lines in high-crime areas.

But Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said that the figure was incorrect, adding that it “misunderstood the mathematics of this” and represents “a misinterpretation of technical data.”

Deputy Atty. Gen. Jamie S. Gorelick maintained that even if the FBI proposal were carried out, the total number of wiretaps would not change substantially. She said that there was no intent to expand or extend wiretapping. About 850 wiretaps are authorized nationwide each year by judges, the Justice Department said.

Gorelick said that the number of wiretaps is unrelated to technology and in each case law enforcement officials must show probable cause that a crime has been committed and must convince a judge to authorize the surveillance.