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The FBI's History of Wiretapping

POSTED: 05:39 PM ET, 12/12/2008 by Derek Kravitz

A video of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) caught on tape by an undercover FBI agent during the Abscam corruption sting.

One of the more baffling questions to come out of the corruption case involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is why the two-term governor openly talked about "pay-to-play" schemes in the first place. Shouldn't he have known better? Wiretapping phones is a time-honored FBI tradition.

Wiretap court orders spiked during the Reagan and Clinton administrations and government officials, cabinet members and politicians from both parties, along with the occasional gangster or two, have been caught in the process. Wiretaps in criminal cases, so-called Title III wiretaps, jumped 20 percent in 2007 from the year before, with 457 federal and 1751 state taps being approved.

The FBI broke into civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s home and office and installed room bugs in an attempt to find evidence King was associating with communists. They didn't uncover anything but did overhear a "sexual encounter" involving King at a party at the Willard Hotel in Washington and another incident in which King told an "off-color joke" about the recently-assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

FBI agents tapped the office phone of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) a few years ago, resulting in a bevy of federal corruption charges against him. The Abscam sting operation targeting corruption among elected officials in the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted in six members of Congress, including recently deceased Rep. Raymond Lederer (D-Pa.) and Sen. Harrison "Pete" Williams (D-N.J.), being convicted on bribery charges. Many were caught accepting or at least thinking about taking bribes on tape, including an "unindicted co-conspirator," Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.)

Most famously, former President Richard M. Nixon approved the illegal wiretapping of 17 government officials and reporters in May 1969 to figure out who was leaking information to the press, along with the taping of conversations in his own office.

A collection of quotes from notable FBI and government wiretaps after the jump:

"I don't think it should ever get out that we taped this office, Bob. Have we got people that are trustworthy on that? I guess we have." -- Nixon in March 1973, speaking to his former special counsel, Charles W. Colson.

"The only thing I was concerned with was, did you hear if -- hear from (the racketeers) after we talked?" -- Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), then a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale, describing a letter he wrote allowing the return of $845,000 to two convicted racketeers in exchange for a $150,000 bribe, prosecutors alleged. Hastings was acquitted at trial but was later impeached in the House and lost his federal judgeship after his conviction in a Senate trial. He is only the sixth U.S. judge to be impeached and removed from office. He later won a House seat to represent Florida's 23rd congressional district.

"I'm not interested, I'm sorry...You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested, maybe I won't." -- Murtha speaking to an undercover FBI agent as part of the bureau's Abscam operation in the late 1970s.

"I ain't got no trouble. I'm gonna be all right. They got the (expletive) trouble. And I don't mean the cops, I mean the people...Even some guys, some people downstairs now who I know whose (expletive) stomach is rotten. I know whose stomach ain't rotten...I could smell it the way a dog senses when a guy's got fear." -- Reputed mobster John Gotti speaking to subordinates in the Gambino crime family. The Teflon Don was convicted in 1992 of racketeering charges in connection with the slaying of his predecessor Paul Castellano. Gotti was sentenced to life in prison and died in 2002 at age 61.

"I think you've done what you thought was right and what I think is right and so, let's stick this thing out together, OK?" -- Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), speaking to wealthy oil executive Bill Allen about the Justice Department's public corruption investigation of him in October 2006. The FBI was secretly recorded the phone call with Allen's help. Stevens was convicted in October in federal court of accepting improper gifts from Allen and awaits sentencing.

By Derek Kravitz |  December 12, 2008; 5:39 PM ET
Previous: Zell 'Point Man' Identified as Blago Contact | Next: Conflicts Mark Charters Oversight

Comments

Please email us to report offensive comments.



Gosh that's encouraging, the FBI was breaking the law in only one of the above incidents.

Posted by: hairguy01 | December 12, 2008 8:14 PM

Better that citizens listen in on government, than that government listens in on citizens.

Better we had no national police force, aka "FBI".

I'm more likely to be abused by my government than by criminals.

- a citizen of the USA

Posted by: officermancuso | December 12, 2008 9:52 PM

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