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Almost 90 Percent of All US Wiretaps Listen for Suspected Drug Deals

A new government report found that wiretaps not only hit an all-time high in 2013, but the vast majority were out for drug deals.
July 15, 2014, 8:40pm
Image: Eamon Curry/Flickr

Earlier this year, a joint US-Mexico wiretap investigation netted the world's top drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, after American agents in Arizona intercepted a mobile phone owned by the son of one of Chapo's closest confidantes. It was a huge catch—Chapo, the elusive head of the globe-spanning Sinaloa cartel, had been on the run for 13 years.

But that was merely one eavesdrop in the bucket of narcotics-based wiretaps carried out in the US in 2013, during which the bulk of the surveillance that ultimately led to Chapo's arrest actually went down. According to a new Administrative Office of US Courts report, wiretaps not only hit an all-time high in 2013, the most recent year for which we have data on law enforcement wiretaps. The overwhelming majority, nearly 90 percent, listened for suspected narcotics dealings.


The report breaks down the various shades and hotspots of authorized wiretap surveillance on electronic, oral, and wire communicatons in the US. All told, federal and state judges greenlit 3,576 wiretaps last year, according to the report. That's only a five percent bump over 2012, to be sure. Compare that to a decade ago, however, when domestic law enforcement carried out about half as many wiretaps as today, and it's clear that agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration are taking more and more after the Central Intelligence and National Security Agencies when it comes to spying.

Image: Adminstrative Office of US Courts

But the real kicker is in what crimes, exactly, all these wiretaps were out for. Of all the criminal offenses investigated using wiretaps, as seen in the above chart, illegal drug offenses were far and away most prevalent. "Narcotics" constituted a whopping 3,115 of the 3,576 total wiretaps, followed by "other major offenses" (including smuggling and money laundering), homicide, and kidnapping, which was the subject of one wiretap.

No, I am not kidding. "Kidnapping" got a single wiretap last year.

Anyway, most of these were done through wire surveillance. No real surprises there. (If you're curious: factoring for population, Nevada is the number one wiretap state, as Pew reports.) Phone taps comprised 2,158 (93 percent) of the intercepts installed in 2013, the report goes on, with the majority going after mobile units, not cordless or landline units. Curiously, only 21 wiretap authorizations were carried out for electronic comms.


Then again, that is primarily the NSA's game. But mind you, the office behind the report, the Administrative Office of US Courts, is prohibited from publicizing any data that falls under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the founding piece of legislation that allows the NSA to do what it does.

Transmitters atop telecom tower. Image: Shutterstock

We don't know exactly who was arrested, or who's facing conviction as a result of last year's wiretaps. All we know, based on the report, is that 3,744 arrests and 702 convictions came out of the wiretaps in 2013.

What this means is that we really have no idea what sort of drug offenders, Chapo aside, are being tapped. However, FBI statistics tell us that even as the practice of wiretapping becomes ever more commonplace in the US, 82 percent of the total number of narcotics arrestees in the US in 2012 (we don't yet have figures for this year) weren't for distribution. They were for possession. As Pando notes, that's a slight uptick from 2010 and 2011, when posession arrest percentages came out to 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," Pando adds, "suggests that intensified wiretapping has had little effect on what kinds of drug offenders are arrested each year." Never mind how heavily last year's domestic wiretap profile skewed toward counternarcotics, it just doesn't seem to be making much of a dent.

Of course, it could be argued that so long as drugs remain illegal at the national level, everything else, from corruption to murder to kidnapping, will continue apace. In this view, the narcotics trade sits atop the criminal pyramid; other serious crimes, the sort highlighted in the AOUC's 2013 wiretap report, are byproducts of the narco trade.

Either way, better hold the line of coke.