thewire

The US has released its annual wiretap report for 2013, and as befits a country that many perceive to have become a surveillance state, federal and state wiretaps were up, hitting a ten-year high.

Judges authorized a total of 3,576 wiretaps last year, and while that’s only a 5 percent increase over the previous year, it represents a surge in surreptitious surveillance by the government over the past few years.

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The overwhelming majority of the taps were placed on mobile phones and landlines while only 21 authorizations were made for electronic communications — I guess the NSA has that one covered. (It’s worth noting that the office that put out this report is not permitted to share data regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which is how the NSA does its business). What’s perhaps most interesting about the report are the types of criminals targeted by the wiretaps: Were law enforcement officers going after corrupt officials? Murderers? Terrorists? Nope. 87 percent of the authorized interception attempts were intended to catch drug offenders. Apparently there’s no corruption going on in America. Hooray! Happy Fourth of July!

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Granted, This is nothing new: In looking over the past few years of wiretap reports, drug offenders have long attracted the lion’s share of federal and state wiretaps. But that means the surge in overall wiretaps has nothing to do with a shift in how law enforcement chooses to mete out these resources. It really just represents an intensification of the country’s war on drugs which has cost federal and state governments $1 trillion over the past four decades.

And what has that $1 trillion bought us? The world’s highest documented incarceration rate, with almost half of those prisoners arrested for drug crimes. These convictions disproportionately impact African Americans, in terms of both the number of prisoners and time-served. The Sentencing Project advocacy group says that, on average, African Americans spend virtually the same amount of time in prison for drug offenses as whites do for violent offenses. Meanwhile, addiction rates in this country have remained steady since 1970.

Of course it’s possible that by putting more drug enforcement resources into wiretaps, agents can go after higher-profile targets, as opposed to street-level dealers that fill prisons. Indeed, wiretaps played a crucial role in the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel and, according to Forbes of all places, the 67th most powerful person in the world. They are also presumably less racially-biased and more effective than tactics like New York’s “stop-and-frisk” program – a report found that out of 2.3 million stops, only 3 percent resulted in a conviction.

Unfortunately, the wiretap report doesn’t break down who was arrested or convicted thanks to the wiretaps. It merely states that the surveillance resulted in 3,744 arrests and 702 convictions last year. But statistics from the FBI show that while the use of wiretapping has intensified, 82.2 percent of all US drug arrests in 2012 (the 2013 statistics aren’t out yet) were for possession, not distribution. That’s actually a slight increase over 2011 and 2010 when the percentage of possession arrests were 81.8 and 81.9 respectively. These statistics, combined with the fact that the number of total annual drug arrests has remained about the same since 2010, suggests that intensified wiretapping has had little effect on what kinds of drug offenders are arrested each year.

Court-authorized wiretapping designed to bust up drug rings is certainly more palatable to the American public than, say, the massive warrantless wiretapping conducted by the NSA. (You can probably blame television’s “The Wire” for that). But at a total estimated cost of over $95 million last year, and an enormous percentage of those resources dedicated to fighting a $1 trillion drug war that many believe we cannot win, and that still others believe has caused more harm than good, the explosion in wiretapping over the past few years should continue to be a matter of public debate. After all, think of all the rehab centers and drug counselors the DEA could pay for with its $2.8 billion budget.

But don’t hold your breath: After all, federal agents love toys more than treatment.