WASHINGTON – The FBI may need to conduct electronic surveillance on as many as 890 telephone calls of Marylanders on any given day, an FBI study says.
The study is a response to a 1994 law requiring telephone companies to ensure that they have the capability to accommodate court-approved electronic surveillance such as wiretaps, phone traces and other types of phone surveillance.
FBI officials declined to detail how many phone calls are typically under surveillance in Maryland, but the 890 estimate would represent a major increase, the data shows.
The FBI study also included data on the busiest surveillance day for every county in the United States from January 1993 to March 1995.
The maximum for Prince George’s County on one given day in that 26-month span was 120, the most in Maryland. Baltimore County was second with 113, followed by Baltimore city with 71, Montgomery County with 66 and Anne Arundel County with 53.
The rural counties of Caroline, Queen Anne’s and Garrett had no FBI telephone surveillance during the 26 months, records show.
The FBI estimates that it may conduct electronic surveillance on as many as 923 phone calls on any given day in Virginia and as many as 282 in the District of Columbia.
The FBI classifies three types of electronic telephone surveillance: wiretaps, trap and traces and pen registers.
A wiretap captures a conversation between people talking on the telephone. A trap and trace records the telephone numbers and locations dialed on an incoming call, but not any content of conversation. A pen register records the numbers dialed in an outgoing call.
Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom called court-approved electronic surveillance “one of law enforcement’s most important investigative techniques.”
“The purpose of (the new law), and the FBI’s purpose in developing the estimates, is to help protect the American people from the worst crimes – terrorism, drug trafficking, violence of all types,” Kallstrom said.
In the past 14 years, court-approved electronic surveillance has been responsible in the conviction of more than 26,000 felons, he said.
Wiretaps make up just 10 percent of the electronic surveillance conducted by the FBI, said bureau spokesman Barry Smith.
Breckenridge Wilcox, former U.S. Attorney for Maryland, said the FBI uses wiretapping relatively infrequently because it is a labor-intensive process.
“You need a live body listening in for long periods of time, Breckenridge said. “And in some cases, especially in drug rings, people will speak in another language and the FBI will be forced to bring in a guy who speaks that language to translate and transcribe the material.”