by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior EditorTo "rove" means to wander from place to place, with no particular destination. A "roving wiretap" is a tap on any telephone that a suspect uses, roving from one telephone to another, with no particular locational target. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation is now authorized to engage in roving wiretaps without having to get approval by a court.
The FBI obtained this power in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal 1999, H.R. 3694. The roving wiretap provisions are in section 604, "Wire and Electronic Communications Interception Requirements." (See www.cdt.org/legislation/calea/roving.html by the Center for Democracy and Technology; firstname.lastname@example.org).
With the power provided by this 1999 Act, the FBI may now tap your telephone to listen to and record your calls, without having to get a court warrant, even if they are not investigating you. If they suspect that someone you know, such as a friend, relative, or business contact, is using your telephone for illegal activities, they may tap your phone. The FBI may tap any phone the suspect uses or even just possible has access to, such as when he visits your house. This applies to faxes and computer messages also.
On February 4, 1999, Eric Holder, deputy attorney general of the U.S. defended this expanded FBI power in an article "Only Necessary Wiretaps" in the Washington Post, p. A26. Nat Hentoff in his January 2 column "Raid on Rights" wrote that roving wiretaps were an expansion of federal power, but Holder replied that such taps have been legal since 1986!
It's no comfort to learn that the FBI has already been rovingly tapping telephones. But Holder agrees that the 1999 law expanded the scope of the roving taps. The 1986 law required that the suspect was changing phones with the intent of escaping surveillance. Now, the FBI only needs to show that the suspect's actions have the effect of thwarting the snooping.
This expansion of wiretap authority needs to be seen in the context of ever-increasing government intrusion into privacy, liberty, and private property. U.S. Representative Bob Barr of Georgia exposed a plan by the U.S. Department of Justice to obtain massive new enforcement powers (www.house.gov/barr/p_doj.html) without any hearings or debate.
Among the powers sought by the Department of Justice in 1998 were:
- an expansion of the definition of terrorism to include domestic crimes having no relationship to terrorism;
- the power to seize commercial transportation assets;
- expanded wiretap authority to allow greater use of roving wiretaps and wiretaps without any court authority;
- enlarged asset forfeiture (confiscation) in both criminal and civil matters;
- the establishment of a permanent FBI police force;
- allowing more military involvement in domestic law enforcement;
- authority to force telephone and internet companies to divulge information on their customers.
Barr stated that these proposals "represent a sneak attack on the most cherished principles of our democracy. If they become a part of our law, freedom and privacy in America will be permanently and severely diminished."
Even if the intent of these powers is to catch criminals, there are no real constraints on government using these powers on the innocent and to confiscate the property of those who are only suspected of violating laws or who only have innocent connections to those who are engaged in crime.
If the legitimate function of government is to protect property rights, it should be clear that the U.S. government has turned this upside down and is violating property rights to a greater degree than all the criminals. When the people's representatives hand over such powers to the law enforcers, they turn government itself into the chief criminal.
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Copyright 1999 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.