Gov't Intercepted Millions Of Conversations In Single Drug Investigation, Netted Zero Convictions

from the Title:-III,-Privacy:-0 dept

The most intrusive of your tax dollars hard at work:

US authorities intercepted and recorded millions of phone calls last year under a single wiretap order, authorized as part of a narcotics investigation.

The wiretap order authorized an unknown government agency to carry out real-time intercepts of 3.29 million cell phone conversations over a two-month period at some point during 2016, after the order was applied for in late 2015.

This detail, contained in the US Courts' latest wiretap report, shows how much the government can get with a single wiretap order. Using assertions of "training and expertise," US drug warriors intercepted millions of phone calls, ringing up a $335,000 third-party phone bill in the process.

But hey, the Drug War can't be won without casting a wide dragnet. Drug conspiracies are vast and far-reaching, often leading law enforcement to bigger fish further down the line. Or so the affidavit assertions say…

But the authorities noted that the surveillance effort led to no incriminating intercepts, and none of the handful of those arrested have been brought to trial or convicted.

To recap:

1 wiretap warrant

$335,000 spent

3.3 million communications intercepted

0 convictions

The statutes governing wiretap warrants designate they should only be used when all other, less-intrusive investigative methods have failed. The fact that these 3.3 million communications failed to add up to a single conviction suggests other investigative methods weren't fully explored before a judge autographed this warrant request. To be fair to the judge, the requesting agency probably wasn't forthcoming about its previous investigative ventures.

But that's enough being fair to judges: Marcy Wheeler notes courts approving wiretap orders are even more of a rubberstamp than the FISA court.

The FISC report showed that that court denied in full 8 of 1485 individual US based applications, at a rate of .5%, along with partially denying or modifying a significant number of others.

The Article III report showed that out of 3170 requests, state and federal courts denied just 2 requests.

[...]

That’s a denial rate of .06%.

If there's good news to be gleaned from this report, it's that the number of wiretap orders obtained has dropped dramatically over the last year.

A total of 3,168 wiretaps were reported as authorized in 2016, compared with 4,148 the previous year. Of those, 1,551 were authorized by federal judges, compared with 1,403 in 2015. A total of 1,617 wiretaps were authorized by state judges, compared with 2,745 in 2015.

There's been a slight uptick in federal court approvals, but a dramatic downturn in state court approvals. Most of this drop can likely be linked to 0 being under the direction of a new District Attorney, who has stepped up to curb the wiretap abuses by his predecessor. For several years, the DEA -- which should be running its wiretap requests through federal courts -- was running its wiretap affidavits past an absentee DA and a very compliant (and efficient) state court judge.

Nearly all of that surveillance was authorized by a single state court judge in Riverside County, who last year signed off on almost five times as many wiretaps as any other judge in the United States. The judge's orders allowed investigators — usually from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — to intercept more than 2 million conversations involving 44,000 people, federal court records show.

As USA Today's Brad Heath discovered, state court judge Helios Hernandez was a regular wiretap warrant printing press, which led to the DEA funneling a great deal of its requests through his courtroom.

Officials approved another 607 wiretaps in 2015, according to the figures released by the district attorney’s office. Most were approved in the first half of the year, before [new DA Mike] Hestrin said he installed a “stricter” standard that required every new wiretap application to have a “strong investigatory nexus” to Riverside County.

Taps have dwindled since then. So far this year [2016], Hestrin has approved only 14. In the first two months of last year, his office approved 126.

As Heath's report notes, this single DA's office and single state court judge were once responsible for 20% of the nation's state court-approved wiretaps. This no longer is the case, and the DEA's recent legal troubles associated with these questionable wiretaps has probably pushed it towards seeking more federal judges' signatures last year -- something it should have been doing all along.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 6 Jul 2017 @ 8:46am

    So somebody earned 335k and a lot of voyeurism fetishes were satisfied amirite?

    And the conclusion is that law enforcement is working and drugs aren't a problem anymore because even though millions of communications were intercepted none of them were drug related.

    In another pressing issue your grandma had problems cancelling her Comcast subscription Mike. - anonymous cop

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bergman (profile), 6 Jul 2017 @ 10:46am

    Our ancestors rebelled and fought a war over this

    General warrants are supposedly illegal in the US, so how the hell can a single wiretap order scoop up millions of conversations?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jason, 6 Jul 2017 @ 10:54am

    If there's good news to be gleaned from this report, it's that the number of wiretap orders obtained has dropped dramatically over the last year.

    I'm not sure how great this news is supposed to be. Only 3,168 wiretap warrants in 2016? If a single warrant can scoop up 3.3 million "conversations" in two months, then they probably only need on the order of a few hundred of them to cover every phone in the country for a whole year.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2017 @ 10:56am

    If this 'targeted' effort had zero results, just how much of a white elephant is that bit silo in Utah?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 6 Jul 2017 @ 11:20am

    One warrant to record 3.29 million cell phone conversations over a two-month period. Probably with little more than a few mouse clicks.

    That's quite the "going dark" problem you got there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David, 6 Jul 2017 @ 12:22pm

    Nonsensical conclusion:

    The statutes governing wiretap warrants designate they should only be used when all other, less-intrusive investigative methods have failed. The fact that these 3.3 million communications failed to add up to a single conviction suggests other investigative methods weren't fully explored before a judge autographed this warrant request.

    Quite contrary: a random selection of 3.3 million wiretap targets would likely have turned up something worthwhile. So I consider it totally plausible that all other, less-intrusive investigative methods have indeed failed. Because there was nothing to be found in the first place.

    If you haven't found any dirt on the remaining group of people, it must have been because you did not search thorough enough.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      frank, 8 Jul 2017 @ 2:56am

      Re: Nonsensical conclusion:

      They should all get a medal.or something. 3 monts snooping ob 3 million people, and they can't pin anything on any of them. They accidentally selected saints.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Unanimous Cow Herd, 6 Jul 2017 @ 12:48pm

    Good news?

    "If there's good news to be gleaned from this report, it's that the number of wiretap orders obtained has dropped dramatically over the last year."

    I doubt that means that they aren't still listening to those calls.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 6 Jul 2017 @ 12:57pm

    Encrypted voice calls need backdoors!

    Clearly, the guilty parties were using on-the-fly verbal encryption techniques. Spot the subversive messaging:

    "I would like you... to deliver... a pizza... to my home."

    I think we all know what that really means; but thanks to leftie technologists, impenetrable wetware has encoded the underlying messages.

    (Like busting encryption, simply hoovering up massive amounts of voice calls is no substitute for actual investigative work.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2017 @ 1:42pm

    Amazing price tag

    Given the cost of a single cell line, I find it highly improbable that the phone companies could service such a large wiretap for such a small sum. Unless, of course, they either took a massive loss doing it or their operating costs are far lower than they like to admit. ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Roger Strong (profile), 6 Jul 2017 @ 2:10pm

      Re: Amazing price tag

      With millions of conversations intercepted and recorded for just one court order, the government agency is obviously getting a bulk purchase discount.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    AnonCow, 6 Jul 2017 @ 2:41pm

    Private sector variation

    Boss: I gave you 3M leads and a $300K marketing budget, how many sales did you make?

    Salesperson: None

    Boss: You are fired. GTFO!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Jul 2017 @ 3:16pm

    No wonder they want to hide the outcomes, the costs to our alleged rights might outweigh the claimed benefits that actually result in nothing.

    There is no oversight, just people terrified of soundbites & contractors spending money on "grassroots" groups to tell us how wonderful these things are.

    Our haystack is now larger than the globe and doubles every day... yet we think they might finally find a needle to make it worth it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2017 @ 5:06pm

    Clearly the low cost of this "collection" did not include any "start-up" costs. Me thinks that the capability to capture calls in bulk is already in place and on-going and that the $335K was the cost to "program" the scanning software to search for the specific words that this was to find and to do the scanning for 2 months; and maybe some hard drives.

    Maybe there is some FOIA info that can be dredged out of this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2017 @ 7:08pm

    Why dont these failures ever result in terminations of employment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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