Long Arms of the Law

Yet as the FBI has made one blunder after another, it has gained new and dramatically broadened powers that essentially allow it to eavesdrop on anyone.

For starters, the Bureau has won greater latitude in using wiretaps. Consider that in 1979 the FBI executed 87 surveillance warrants for traditional criminals and 199 for foreign intelligence, reports Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse. By 2000, there were 479 warrants against traditional criminals and 1,012 for foreign intelligence—and still the feds couldn't stop the attacks of Sept. 11.

Again expanding its eavesdropping capabilities, the Bureau created a system called Carnivore. Under this scheme, agents install special boxes on the networks of Internet providers, allowing the trenchcoats to intercept the communications of each and every customer.

The government is also implementing a rule that requires all telecommunications carriers to standardize their operations so the FBI can listen in over any one of them at any time—providing limitless access to everyone's phone or computer. Then, under its Cyber Knight project, the FBI can secretly install eavesdropping software to record every keystroke.

We are now returning to an era of unbridled policing by the FBI. In the 1960s, the FBI's COINTELPRO efforts included the selective sharing of information from its investigations to deny people employment and smear their reputations. Elements of the civil rights and anti-war movements were targeted for disruption because of suspicion they were allegedly "influenced" by Communists.

Today, the FBI faces a whole new challenge. Its mushrooming staff and seemingly endless eavesdropping are bringing in reams and reams of data, all of which must be not only read but also understood. We already know the solution to that: hire more people.

Additional reporting by Gabrielle Jackson, Meritxell Mir, Cassandra Lewis and Michael Ridley.
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