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FBI Documents New Wish List For Future Wiretapping Needs

By John Schwartz
The Washington Post

The FBI Tuesday revealed a detailed wish list that it said would guarantee its ability to conduct wiretaps in the digital age without significantly expanding the agency's current level of surveillance over Americans.

The agency is requesting that in coming years telephone companies set aside the capability for law-enforcement officials to perform as many as 60,000 simultaneous wiretaps and other traces nationwide out of the nation's 160 million telephone lines.

The number of potential taps may seem huge, but the agency said it expected only modest increases over current rates, of about a thousand taps a year. Taps on standard "wireline " phones could be expected to grow 5.92 percent between 1994 and 1998, and 4.55 percent for the period from 1998 through 2004, the report stated; taps on wireless phones would grow 14.3 percent and 8.38 percent during the same periods.

One privacy advocate, David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Tuesday that the new increases cited in the FBI report constituted "significant" growth in wiretaps over time.

The FBI was required to file the report under the terms of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994. FBI Assistant Director James K. Kallstrom said, "This is not a story about columns of numbers. This is a story about fighting crime and protecting people."

The long-running fight over the wiretap legislation pits law-enforcement officials against privacy and civil-liberties advocates - who charge that the FBI is trying to extend its surveillance abilities in the digital age - and the telecommunications companies that would bear much of the cost.

Law-enforcement officials have consistently stated they have not asked for any additional authority to conduct wiretaps but were merely seeking to retain their tool of electronic surveillance, which Kallstrom said, "is falling an inadvertent victim to galloping technology advances."

Kallstrom compared the capacity question to the placement of fire hydrants along city streets. "Fire hydrants are placed in communities not because they necessarily represent the number of fires that are expected to occur but are deployed so that, in the event a fire should occur in a particular location, there is a hydrant available for use by the fire department," Kallstrom said.