The Evil in Eavesdropping

Wiretapping in New York in the 1950s

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 01:26 PM

City, Telephone Room City, Telephone Room (The Library of Virginia/flickr)

Long before FISA and PRISM, New York State politicians struggled with maintaining the delicate balance between personal privacy and public safety.  

Police-state menace or weapon to protect our liberties?*

Illegal wiretapping became a hot issue in the 1950s, particularly after Teamster President-elect Jimmy Hoffa was brought to trial for the crime in 1957. Hoffa had been accused of tapping the telephones of subordinates in the union's Detroit headquarters. The trial gained wide national attention when Hoffa's own conversations were were made public - the result of government wiretaps between Hoffa and reputed organized crime figure Johnny Dio. 

Several scandals made the practice especially controversial in New York state —most notably, the wiretapping of Charles McGuinness, the Greenwich Village lawyer who had challenged Tammany Hall boss Carmine DeSapio for district leader. In this November 8, 1959 episode of WNYC's Campus Press Conference (1951-1962), Host Jay Nelson Tuck and a few earnest university newspaper editors question the Chairman of New York's Joint Legislative Committee to Study Illegal Interception of Communications, Anthology P. Savarese Jr.

Savarese's comments on the program are measured and diplomatic.  While his committee had created measures to prevent the use of illegal wiretaps in civil cases,  he was unable to convince Albany to make them inadmissible in criminal cases.  Ultimately, Savarese seems confident that government agencies will go through the proper channels in order to obtain court orders for wiretapping —although he admits that in a pinch (the hot pursuit doctrine), police could still wiretap before asking for a court order. "They wouldn't do it unless they had really good basis for doing it. If they did it too often...the court would get annoyed," Savarese says.

The panel of college cub reporters raises a number of issues with Savarese, including what kind of oversight the FCC has at the federal level when it comes to state's wiretapping laws. "If the states are charged with the right or with the responsibility of maintaining law and order," Savarese replies, "then they must be permitted to determine how they will investigate crime and how they will prosecute it. And the federal government shouldn't prevent legitimate law enforcement techniques to be dictated by the states."

The controversy would not abate until the passage in 1968 of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which included the first federal regulation of wiretapping in its Title III. The continuing growth of electronic communications ensure that similar issues will be in the news for the foreseeable future.

*question posed by Don Whitehead in the Feb 7, 1954 The Milwaukee Sentinel article, "Legalized Wiretapping: Danger to Freedom or Aid to Nation's Security?"


Anthony P. Savarese


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