WASHINGTON – The FBI is seeking the capability after October 1998 to conduct electronic surveillance on as many as 890 telephone calls of Marylanders on any given day, an agency study says.
The heaviest surveillance is anticipated in Prince George’s County, where officials are seeking assurances from local telephone companies that they have the capacity to handle 199 wiretaps, phone traces and other types of phone surveillance.
That’s up from a past high of 120, recorded in the county on the busiest day of a 26-month cycle ending March 1, 1995.
The additional surveillance is needed to address an anticipated “steady increase in criminal activity” that makes use of telephones, said bureau spokesman Barry Smith.
The surveillance, said Assistant FBI Director James Kallstrom, is used “to help protect the American people from the worst crimes – terrorism, drug trafficking, violence of all types.”
The FBI and other agencies also sometimes use it to combat tax fraud, officials said.
In the past 14 years, court-approved electronic surveillance has been responsible for the conviction of more than 26,000 felons, Kallstrom said.
The FBI study included data on the busiest surveillance day for every county in the United States from Jan. 1, 1993, to March 1, 1995. Busiest days occurred at different times in different counties.
The study also included estimates of future needs for each of those counties.
For instance, the FBI estimates that after October 1998 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.
During the 26-month span studied, Baltimore County had the second highest instances of electronic surveillance in Maryland, with 113 cases. It was 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.
Wiretaps make up just 10 percent of the electronic surveillance conducted by the FBI, Smith said. The other two categories are 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.
Breckenridge Willcox, a 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, Willcox 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.”