With most wiretaps authorised by U.S. judges over the past decade targeted at individual offenders such as gamblers and drug runners, rather than big-time terrorists, proposed new wiretap powers in the US, will only give the Clinton administration further license to snoop on private citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says in a new report.
In a sharp denunciation of the thrust of the debate on Capitol Hill over government surveillance issues, the ACLU says the public has been kept largely in the dark.
"No one has asked the American people if they want Big Brother permanently hardwired into the country's communications infrastructure, but that is what will happen if the Clinton administration has its way," according to the report, entitled 'Big Brother In The Wires'.
The group maintains that "electronic surveillance is absolutely inconsistent with a free society," saying that under the Constitution, U.S. citizens have the right to keep their private conversations shielded from intrusion by nosy neighbours or police, using "whatever technology is available."
The use of data-scrambling encryption technology, which is subject to certain government restrictions and is now at the centre of a furious legislative debate, is the only way to protect private electronic conversations and fund transfers, the report says.
While officials from the Department of Justice, the FBI, the National Security Council, and the Drug Enforcement Agency support further restrictions on the use of encryption, ACLU Legislative Counsel Gregory Nojeim warns in the report that such restrictions "will make possible a much more intrusive and omniscient level of surveillance than has ever been possible before."
The report cites government data to show that over the past decade, 83 percent of wiretaps authorised by judges occurred during investigations of "vice crimes", such as gambling, rather than terrorists such as the Oklahoma City bombers.
"The government's own records show that electronic surveillance is of marginal utility in preventing or solving serious crimes," the report states. "It did not, for example, stop or lead to the apprehension of the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, or the World Trade Center bombers. Those crimes were solved by good detective work."
Government records also show that 1.7 million of the 2.2 million conversations monitored by wiretaps in 1996 were later found to be innocent by prosecutors, according to the report.