Surveillance law permits cloak-and-dagger spying
By Ted Bridis
Nov. 21, 2002
WASHINGTON - They have broken into homes, offices, hotel rooms and automobiles. Copied private computer files. Installed hidden cameras. Listened with microphones in one couple's bedroom for more than a year. Rummaged through luggage. Eavesdropped on telephone conversations.
It's the FBI, operating with permission from a secretive U.S. court in a high-stakes effort pitting the nation's premier law enforcement agency against spies and terrorists.
Most Americans never see this side of the FBI.
"The average citizen has no idea whether information about them might be caught up in one of these investigations," said David Sobel of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in 1978 and strengthened after Sept. 11, 2001, by the USA Patriot Act, gives investigators a potent arsenal against "agents of a foreign power." The Bush administration this week won an important court victory affirming its plans to expand these tactics to more cases.
Besides break-ins, agents have pried into safe deposit boxes, watched from afar with video cameras and binoculars and intercepted e-mails. They have planted microphones, computer bugs and other high-tech tracking devices.
"The whole thing is very, very mysterious and quiet," said Plato Cacheris, the Washington lawyer who represented spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. "There's not a lot that anyone can tell you."
Surveillance is a deadly serious game among the trench-coat set featuring "black bag" jobs and wiretaps. Their 007-like gadgets and the specialized agents who use them are among the best available.
What little is known about these FBI techniques emerges from court records spread across dozens of cases. But only a fraction of these nearly 1,000 surveillances each year result in any kind of public disclosure, so little is known outside classified circles about how they work.
Legal experts said this week's court decision will lead to increasing use of the surveillance law.
"We're going to do everything we can to identify those who would hurt us to disrupt them, to delay them, to defeat them," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.