WASHINGTON – Law enforcement officials sought fewer court orders last year for eavesdropping on private conversations, a report says, but that doesn't include hundreds of wiretaps approved by a special court to track down suspected terrorists and spies.
Federal and state judges authorized all but one of the 1,359 wiretap applications submitted in 2002. The requests represented a 9 percent decrease from the 1,491 applications logged the previous year, according to the annual report by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Federal wiretaps rose by 2 percent, to 497, while the number of applications filed by state officials dropped 14 percent to 861.
Nearly all the nonfederal applications came from seven states: New York, with 404 applications; California, 143; New Jersey, 81; Pennsylvania, 79; Maryland, 54; Florida, 37; and Illinois, 25.
The numbers in the report don't reflect wiretap applications overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which has approved thousands of warrants since it was established in 1978 by Congress. The FISA court is known to have denied only two government applications, and both of those involved test cases over the court's legal authority. In one of the two cases, the Reagan administration Justice Department asked that its application be denied as part of an effort to curtail the court's authority.
The "spy court" approves wiretaps and other surveillance of suspected spies, terrorists or foreign agents in the United States. It approved 934 applications in 2001. The number of applications it approved last year will be submitted in a report to Congress in the next few weeks.
The lack of spy court data in the annual wiretap report makes the document less useful than it used to be, said Jameel Jaffer, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"This report used to give us a comprehensive picture of the government's use of the wiretap provision in criminal cases," he said. "It no longer does because the government is using the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct surveillance in certain criminal investigations."
According to the administrative office's report, the bulk of the wiretap requests -- 77 percent -- emerged from narcotics investigations. Gambling, racketeering and homicides were the other crimes cited most often in applications.
The telephone wiretap was the most common type of surveillance used, according to the report, with 77 percent of the locations being "portable devices" such as cellular phones and digital pagers.
Ed Cogswell, an FBI spokesman, said he couldn't explain the decrease in wiretap applications. One possible reason might be a shift from wiretap applications from state and federal courts to those submitted in the spy court because "certainly, we have shifted a priority into the counterterrorism arena."
Stephen Dycus, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in national security, said more information is needed before any explanation could be made.
"It could be because Americans are behaving themselves and law enforcement investigations have dropped as a result," he said. "Or, it could be that FBI's resources have been rediverted from ordinary law enforcement to Homeland Security duties. We really need more data to have some sense of why."