CAN YOU FIND OUT IF YOUR TELEPHONE IS TAPPED?
by Fred P. Graham - Esquire, May 1973
It depends on who you ask
Unlike most Americans, who suspect it, Sarah Bartlett at least knows she was overheard by an F.B.I. wiretap in the computer room of the Internal Revenue Service Building in Washington, across the street from the Justice Department. On April 25, as she sat at her card-punch machine, the postman handed her a registered letter containing a document known in police circles as a "wiretap notice." It told her that the Government had been given permission to intercept wire communications "to and from" two Washington telephones for a period of fifteen days after January 13, and that during this period her own voice had been heard talking to the parties on those phones.
Miss Bartlett said nothing to the other girls in the computer room, but she must have been stunned. A few weeks later, federal agents came to the computer room and took her away, to face a variety of charges that amounted to being a runner for a numbers game.
There are no figures to disclose how many Americans have received such wiretap messages, and few people who have gotten them have spoken out. But the number could be over 50,000 by now. When Congress enacted the requirement in 1968 that notice of wiretap be given, it intended to sweep away the growing sense of national paranoia about electronic snoopery. But there seems to be an unabated national suspicion that almost everybody is being tapped or bugged by somebody else.
Herman Schwartz, a Buffalo, New York, law professor who is the American Civil Liberties Union's expert on Governmental eavesdropping, estimates that since 1968 between 150,000 and 250,000 Americans have been overheard by the Big Ear of the Federal Government or local police. "If you have anything to do with gambling or drugs, or if you're a public official involved in any hanky-panky and if you're a Democrat, or if you or your friends are involved in radical politics or black activism-you've probably been bugged," Professor Schwartz says.
Henry Kissinger wisecracks to friends that he won't have to write his memoirs-he'll just publish the F.B.I.'s transcripts of his telephone calls. Richard G. Kleindienst has had his Justice Department office "swept." Secretary of State William P. Rogers once shied away from discussing China policy over a liberal newspaper columnist's line. High-ranking officials in New York, Washington and Albany have been notified by the New York District Attorney's office that they may become targets of blackmailers because their visits to a swanky Manhattan whorehouse were recorded on hidden bugs. The technician who regularly sweeps the office of Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, checking the Civil Defense hot-line telephone he had been instructed not to touch, recently found it was wired to bug the room while resting on the hook. Democratic officials waxed indignant over the five characters with Republican connections who were caught attempting to bug the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel-but when they had earlier found less conclusive proof of the same kind of activity, they let it pass without public comment.
The Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1968 makes it a crime, punishable by five years in jail and a $10,000 fine, to eavesdrop on the telephone call or a private conversation without a court order. Only federal law-enforcement officials and local prosecutors in states that have adopted similar wiretap legislation* can get court permission to wiretap, and the law requires that within ninety days after a listening device is unplugged, wiretap notices must be sent to everyone whose phones were bugged, plus anyone else (like Sarah Bartlett) who was overheard and might later be prosecuted because of it. However, because some private investigators and snoopy individuals-nobody knows how many-are ignoring the law against eavesdropping and getting away with it, and because none of the rules governing court-approved wiretapping in ordinary criminal investigations applies to the Federal Government's warrantless wiretapping in the name of "national security," no one can be certain his phone is safe. Before the Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 0, last June that the Government must get warrants for its wiretapping of domestic radicals in national-security cases, the F.B.I. wiretapped both homegrown and foreign "subversives" without court orders. The best estimates were that this accounted for between 54,000 and 162,000 of the 150,000 to 250,000 people who were overheard since 1968. With warrantless wiretapping of domestic radicals now outlawed, the number of persons overheard on warrantless devices is expected to be reduced by about one fourth.
But even with the courts requiring that more Government bugging be reported to the victims, paranoia is fed by improved technology. Bugging has now developed to the point that it is extremely difficult to detect, and even harder to trace to the eavesdropper.
The hottest item these days is the telephone "hook-switch bypass," which circumvents the cutoff switch on a phone and turns it into a sensitive bug, soaking up all the sounds in the room while the telephone is sitting on its cradle. In its most simple form, a little colored wire is added to the jumble of wires inside the telephone-and it is about as easy to detect as an additional strand in a plate of spaghetti. Even if it is found, the eavesdropper probably won't be. A check of the telephone line would most likely turn up a tiny transmitter in a terminal box elsewhere in the neighborhood. It would be impossible to tell which one it was.
My wife happened to learn about this at a time last year when The New York Times locked horns with the Justice Department over the Pentagon Papers, and I was covering the story for The Times. She became convinced that John Mitchell would stop at nothing and that the telephone in our bedroom was hot as a poker. After that, whenever a wifely chewing-out or amorous doings were brewing, I was always forewarned. If anything was about to happen in the bedroom too sensitive for the outside world to hear, my wife would first rise from the bed, cross the room, and ceremoniously unplug the telephone.
"When someone finds out somebody else learned something they didn't want them to know, they usually jump to the conclusion they've been bugged," says Allan D. Bell Jr., president of Dektor Counterintelligence and Security Inc., in Springfield, Virginia, outside Washington. "If they thought about it, there was probably some other, easier way it got out."
Bell's point is that most people get information in the easiest, cheapest and most legal way, and that the person whose secrets have been compromised should consider first if he's thrown away carbons, left his files unlocked, hired a secretary who could be bribed, or just talked too much.
There's an important exception, however, that many people don't know about. A party to a conversation can secretly record it, without violating any law. A person on one end of a telephone call can quietly record the conversation (the old legal requirement of a periodic warning beep is gone). Also, one party to a face-to-face conversation can secret a hidden recorder in his clothing.
James R. Robinson, the Justice Department lawyer in charge of prosecuting those who get caught violating the anti-bugging law, insists that it is relatively rarely broken. He debunks the notion that most private eavesdropping is done in the executive suites of big business. Sex, not corporate intrigue, is behind ninety percent of the complaints he gets. After giving the snoopy spouse or lover a good scare, the Government doesn't even bother to prosecute do-it-yourself wiretappers. If a private investigator did the bugging, they throw the book at him.
Cost is the reason why experts insist there's less wiretapping than most people think. Private investigators who use electronic surveillance don't quote their prices these days, but people in the de-bugging business say the cost can range from $20,000 per month for a first-rate industrial job to $150 per day for the average private detective. High costs also limit Government wiretapping. Last year the average F.B.I. tap cost $600 a day, including installing the device, leasing telephone lines to connect the bugs to F.B.I. offices, monitoring the conversations and typing the transcripts.
Considering the informative quality of most persons' conversations, it isn't worth it. Court records of the F.B.I.'s surveillances have demonstrated that when unguarded conversations are recorded, the result is most likely to be a transcript that is uninformative, inane or incomprehensible.
The folklore of what to do to thwart electronic surveillance is almost uniformly misguided or wrong. Robert F. Kennedy, when he was Senator, was said to have startled a visitor by springing into the air and banging his heels down onto his office floor. He explained this was to jar loose any bug J. Edgar Hoover might have planted. Whether he was teasing or not, experts say it wouldn't have done anything except bruise Senator Kennedy's heels. Former Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas used to complain that, as each election season approached, the reception on his office phone would fade as the current was sapped by the multiple wiretaps installed by his political enemies.
Those people who think poor reception and clicking on the line are due to wiretapping are giving wiretappers less credit-and A.T.&T. more-than either deserves. Present-day wiretaps are frequently powered by their own batteries, or they drain so little current that the large normal power fluctuations make them undetectable, even with sensitive current meters. Clicks on the line can be caused by loose connections in the phone, cables, or central office equipment, wet cables, defective switches in the central office, and power surges when batteries in the central office are charged. A sophisticated wiretap records conversations on a machine that turns itself silently on and off as you speak. The tap is designed to work without extraneous noises; your telephone isn't.
If things you say in private or on the telephone seem to be coming back to you from unlikely sources, your first step should be to make a careful check of the room or rooms that might be bugged. If the Federal Government is doing the eavesdropping, neither you nor any but the most experienced anti-bugging experts will detect it. Nobody has discovered a Justice Department wiretap for years, because the telephone company itself often taps the line and connects it to an F.B.I. listening post. F.B.I. bugs have become so sophisticated that the normal sweep techniques won't detect them, either.
But the kind of eavesdropping that is being done by many private investigators is often so crude that even another amateur can find it. Room bugs come in two types: tiny microphones that send their interceptions to the outside by wire, and little radio transmitters that radio their overhearings to the outside. Both are likely to be installed in electrical fixtures, because their power can be borrowed, their wires can be used to transmit the conversations to the listening post, and the fixtures' electrical innards serve as camouflage for the electrical bugs.
Your telephone has all these attributes, plus three built-in amplifiers the eavesdropper can borrow. You should first remove the plastic cover from your telephone's body and check inside for a wire of odd size or shape that seems to cut across the normal flow of the circuits. A bug or radio transmitter that feeds on your telephone's power and amplifiers will be a thimble-sized cylinder or cube, usually encased in black epoxy and wired into the circuit terminals. Also check for the same devices along the telephone lines in the room, or in the jack or box where the phone is attached to the baseboard. You should also unscrew the mouthpiece and earpiece to check for suspicious wires or objects. (Even an expert would not detect a new item that's being sold illegally-a bugged mouthpiece that looks just like the one now in your telephone, and which can be switched with yours in a few seconds.)
After the phone check, look for suspicious little black forms wired into television sets, radios, lamps and clocks. Also check heating and air-conditioning ducts for mikes with wires running back into the ducts.
Radio transmitter bugs that have their own batteries can be quickly installed, but they can also be easier to find. Check under tables and chairs, between sofa cushions. Remember they need to be near the point of likely conversations to assure good reception. Sometimes radio bugs are so cleverly concealed they are almost impossible to detect.
A German manufacturer advertises bugged fountain pens that actually write, table cigarette lighters that actually light, and briefcases that actually carry briefs. Noting that the owner of such items can absent himself from delicate negotiations and leave his electronic ear behind, the company observes that "obviously, a microphone of this type opens untold opportunities during conferences, negotiations, talks, etc."
If you suspect that your telephone has been tapped and your own visual inspection shows nothing, you can request the telephone company to check the line. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company estimates it gets about ten thousand requests from customers per year to check out their lines. These checks, plus routine repair service, turn up evidence of about two hundred fifty listening devices each year.
When evidence of a tap is found, the company checks with the F.B.I. and with local police in states where the laws permit police wiretapping with court orders. Until recently, if the tap was a court-approved job, the subscriber was assured that "no illegal device" was on the line. This proved so unsettling to the persons who requested the checks that now the telephone company says it tells all subscribers about any taps found. If this includes premature tidings of a court-approved F.B.I. tap, that's a hassle that A.T.&T. is content to leave to the Government and its suspect.
For those who have done the above and are still suspicious, the next step up in defensive measures is to employ an expert to de-bug your premises. A thorough job involves a minute inspection of the premises, including X-ray pictures of desk ornaments and other items that might contain hidden radio transmitters, the use of metal detectors to search out hidden microphones, checks of the electrical wiring for signs of unusual currents, and the use of a sensitive radio-wave detector to find any stray transmissions that a hidden bug might be giving out, plus employment of a radio field-strength meter to locate the bug.
With so much expertise required to do a sound detection job, and with no licensing requirements in most states to bar anybody from clapping on earphones and proclaiming himself an expert de-bugger, it is not surprising that the field abounds with quacks. A Pennsylvania construction company that had lost a series of close bids hired a local private detective last year to sweep its boardroom for bugs. The company's security chief, taking a dim view of the outside hotshot, took an ordinary walkie-talkie, taped its on-button down for steady transmission, and hid it behind the books on a shelf. He sat in a room down the hall and listened as the detective clumped into the room, swept around with his electronic devices, and pronounced the room clean.
Sometimes bogus de-buggers will give clients something extra for their money by planting a device and finding it during their sweep. One "expert" tried this twice in Las Vegas with organized-crime figures, who later compared notes and concluded they'd been taken. "Boy, was he sorry," chortled the Justice Department attorney who related the story.
If you nevertheless want to have your place swept, things are complicated by the telephone company's ban on advertising by de-bugging. As a Missouri Public Service Commission put it, when it upheld the telephone company's refusal to include "de-bugging" in a detective's yellow-page ad, "advertising the ability to detect and remove electronic devices was, in fact, also advertising the ability to place those same devices."
Anyone can be pretty certain of a reliable job by trying one of the major national detective agencies-Burns, Pinkerton or Wackenhut. They charge $40 to $60 per man-hour, for a job that will probably take two men a half day at least. They specialize in industrial work and shy away from domestic-relations matters. So if that's your problem, ask a lawyer or police official which private investigator in town is the most reliable de-bugger around.
It may seem too obvious to bear mentioning, but don't discuss your suspicions about eavesdropping in the presence of the suspected bug. W. R. Moseley, director of the Burns agency's investigations operations, says in probably a majority of the cases, a bugging victim tips off the eavesdropper that he's going to call in a de-bugger-thus giving the eavesdropper an opportunity to cover his tracks.
For the person who wants to have as much privacy as money can buy, the Dektor company is marketing a console about the size of a Manhattan telephone book which, for only $3,500, you can purchase to sit on your office desk and run a constant check on the various things that might be done to your telephone and electric lines to overhear your conversations, detect any use of the electric lines for bugging purposes, and give off a frantic beep-beep! if anyone picks up an extension phone.
As sophisticated as this device is, there is one thing its promoters won't say it will do-detect a wiretap by the F.B.I. With the connection made in a place where no de-bugger will be allowed to check, and the G-men monitoring it on equipment no meter will detect, you can simply never know if the Government is listening.
So if you're a businessman and think you're bugged by competitors, you're probably wrong. If you're a spouse or lover whose amours have gone public, the listening device can be found but probably nothing will be done about it. And if you're being listened to by the Biggest Ear of all, the Government, you'll never really know until you get your "wiretap notice."
*Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.