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The Truth About Wire Tapping
By A.E. Hotchner
Exposed Magazine, 1955
Fawcett Publications, Inc.
The foregoing should give you some idea of the extent to which wire tapping has infiltrated our lives. Testifying before a U.S. Senate committee, J. Edgar Hoover divulged that the FBI taps about 170 phones a day in security cases. When you add to that figure the hundreds of wire taps that are placed by other federal agencies, plus those effected by state and local police, you can appreciate why newcomers to Washington wonder how the lawmakers ever managed before the era of wholesale wire tapping. As for the number of private taps, there is no statistical count, but experts say that they probably run into the thousands.
Last March, police and representatives of the New York City Anti-Crime Committee, probing into reported wire-tapping activities of the slain Serge Rubinstein, uncovered the highly explosive Wiretap, Inc., organization. This subrosa and most extra-legal outfit operated a network of telephone listening posts throughout the mid-city East Side. Information sold by this organization could be used for a variety of purposes from stock market manipulation to the presentation of a strong case in divorce actions.
Just what is the nature of this new force that has come into our lives? How does it work? Is it necessary? Or is it, as some people maintain, a foul and dirty business that must be abolished? What are some of the new devices that are being developed?
H.E.M. Bernhard, director of the Aetna Detective Bureau, is a man who knows just about all there is to know on the subject of wire tapping. He is a very tall, handsome man who has been a criminologist for over forty years. He was a counter-espionage agent in World War I, and as an investigator for a legislative committee in the 20’s, he made some of the earliest exposures of communists. Bernhard has been tapping wires for all his forty years, and he has pioneered some of the techniques now taken for granted in his trade.
Detective Bernhard at phone with his wire-tapping units.
The Minifon recorder is atop the Minitrol electronic controller.
"I would go into a city like Albany or Troy, New York, cold as could be,” he says, “not knowing a soul, totally unfamiliar with the city, and it would be my job to get a line on commies. Now this was 1920, 1921, around in there. Well, it never took me long, once I got my wire taps in. You’d be amazed how many leads you can get if you plug in on the right people. That’s how I got the goods on a school teacher in Buffalo who was a communist. That was the first communist school teacher ever exposed in the United States.”
Bernhard invariably wears a long green eye shade when he is in his office, and his speech still has a very faint Austrian accent. I went to see him in order to get some of the answers to the questions which I have posed.
“When I first started tapping wires,” he said, “it was a simple proposition. I had a headset and I’d clamp the two wires attached to the headset onto somebody’s line and that was all there was to it, aside from scribbling down what I heard. But wire tapping is a lot more complicated that that nowadays. We now use induction pickups that cut in on a phone conversation, and we never have to touch the wires themselves.
If you want me to pick up and record a conversation that’s taking place in a cabin on a boat at sea, I can do it. If you’d like to know what’s being said in a particular hotel room, just rent the room next to it and I can rig up a wall-contact pickup for you that will bring every whisper right into your room. This is achieved with a very sensitive gimmick that listens right through a two-foot wall and amplifies every sound in the room beyond.”
Besides earphones with wires that can easily bite into the telephone’s wires. Bernhard told me that a tapper needs a condenser on his extension wires. This electrical gadget stops the current in the line from running off into his tap wires, but it still permits the tapper to hear, faintly, what is being said. If the condenser were not used, the phone user would immediately detect the loss of volume on the line and become suspicious Most tappers use a small condenser - 1.01 microfarad - except on special jobs.
Another device that a wire tapper needs is a large resistor, which is just a coil that electricity has a hard time penetrating. He uses this to bolster up the condenser in forcing the telephone line not to leak its current When he taps, he needs very little current, because no matter how weak the voices are, he can always bring them up strong with his amplifier.
That’s all a wire tapper needs, actually, and there’s a New York firm that will sell you the whole kit and kaboodle - headphones, needle-point clips to bite the wire, a built-in condenser - the works, for about $35. But just like buying a piano doesn’t make a concert pianist, so, too, buying one of these kits won’t make anyone an expert wire tapper. In fact, any home radio has all the parts in it that a wire tapper needs.
In my interviews with Bernhard, and also with Harry M. Keen, president of the Aetna Bureau, they impressed upon me the fact that the crux of good tapping lies in the recording equipment the tapper has.
The trouble with an ordinary tape recorder is that it must be monitored, and often vital phone calls won’t turn up for weeks. There are many automatic tape recorders on the market - that is, they are activated when the receiver is removed from the cradle, but these machines can only give you an hour’s play.
Bernhard took me into a small room attached to his office and showed me a box containing a machine that looked like a 16-mm film projector.
“This is the only machine of all those available that we consider effective,” he said. “It’s a Recordgraph, and it’s the machinery used by the FBI. It records on 35-mm film and it holds up to three hours of telephone conversation. What’s more, it is voice-actuated, which means that it only turns on when voices are fed to it over the telephone line and it cuts off when the voices do.
“This is a fine machine, all right, but it sells for better than a thousand bucks and it has one big drawback – it makes a grinding noise when it records. That means that if you have it set up in a broom closet, let’s say in an apartment basement, there’s a chance someone will hear it and discover it. Also, it’s big and heavy and not easy to carry around or conceal.”
For years, Bernhard worried about the imperfections in his recording equipment, until an electronics engineer whom he knew sent him a clipping from a scientific journal telling about a new miniature wire recorder being manufactured in Hanover, Germany.
Bernhard looked into the matter and finally arranged for a sample of this recorder, call a Minifon, to be sent to him. It was about the size of his hand and it held a good two hours and thirty minutes worth of conversation on its tiny spool. It weighed only 2 pounds, 7 ounces, could fit into any pocket, and it was powered by its own batteries, although an electrical transformer could be used.
Bernhard immediately recognized it as an answer to a wire tapper’s dreams. he sent for six of them and is responsible for having popularized them in this country in the three years which have intervened. They are no standard equipment for professional tappers. But it took Bernhard’s ingenuity, plus an electronic engineer’s help to make them a valuable tool. He has patented a device, the same size as the Minifon, which clamps to it and is an electronic relay – this means that the Minifon is turned on electronically whenever the electric current is fed through the line, and that only happens when a telephone circuit is completed – when one person calls another and that person answers.
“The beauty of the Minifon and its relay,” Bernhard says, “is that it is so tiny we can put it anywhere. And it has it all over the Recordgraph because it’s absolutely noiseless. It’s certainly made our business easier.”
The Minifon costs $289.50. Bernhard’s relay, called a Minitrol, runs about $250, and the wire is $21.50 a spool, which indicates that its advantages don’t come cheap. One of these, which Bernhard demonstrated for me , is the ease with which live recordings can be made. After we had chatted for a few minutes, he pulled a Minifon from a leather holster under his armpit, very similar to a gun holster, put it down on his desk, opened it, and played for me a recording of our conversation.
He laughed at my amazement and by way of explanation showed me a tiny microphone, no larger than my thumbnail which had been pinned inside his necktie and attached to the Minifon with a wire no thicker than fine silk thread.
“Stand anywhere,” he said, “or walk alongside a couple talking and the Minifon takes it all down for you. The mikes are the secret. Small as they are, they are marvelously sensitive.”
By way of demonstration, he asked his secretary to sit at his desk and read an item from the morning newspaper. He took me back to the small room beyond his office, flicked on a small metal box that lit up its red eye, and turned on a tape recorder. Immediately, the voice of the secretary came into the room and was being recorded on the tape. Bernhard led me back to his desk. He told me that the mike pickup was on top of the desk and defied me to find it. I examined everything: a paper weight, a box with cigarettes, the blotter pad, a pen stand and its pen, the desk clock, a letter opener and similar objects, but none of them was right, so I finally gave up. Bernhard pointed to the telephone.
“But it’s hung up,” I said.
Bernhard showed me two buttons under his desk: when he pressed one of them, it made the telephone in its cradle as it was, a highly sensitive microphone, and when he pressed the other, it turned it off. “I record everything any caller says to me,” he said. “It gives me protection and full details to check back on. We install this system for many business executives who want secret records made of occasional conversations.
“The system we have is this: when someone comes in whom they want recorded, or if in the middle of a talk they want to get a record of what’s being said, they simply excuse themselves for a moment, saying they have to make a call, dial this number and give me a prearranged signal, like “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to keep that 10 o’clock appointment tomorrow.” When I get the code words here, I flip a switch and when that man hangs up his phone from then on everything said in that office is recorded right here, no matter that the other office is miles uptown.”
A good deal of Bernhard’s work, and that of most of the better tappers, is now concerned with anti-tap checking. I discussed this activity with a Washington detective who specializes in it.
“People everywhere have tap-jitters,” he told me. “They think every crackling noise in their phone is a wire tap – it’s just static. Believe me, a good tap makes no noise at all. And all those anti-tap remedies you hear about – rattling keys or ice in the mouthpiece or striking it with a metal object – are all bunk.
The gangster, Dutch Schultz, was so resigned to having his line tapped, that every time he finished a conversation, he yelled into the phone, “I hope your ears drop off.”
One of the most tap-happy men on record was the Los Angeles gambler, Mickey Cohen, who televised so well during the Kefauver hearings. Mickey was obsessed with the notion that people were listening in on his telephone. He was right. People were.
While Mickey’s $120,000 Brentwood home was under construction, police arranged with the builder that it be wire tapped from attic to cellar. (This despite the fact that wire tapping is forbidden in California law.) For a solid year, police recorded every illiterate vowel uttered by Mickey over the phone. Mickey, meanwhile, regarded his phone, as he regarded all phones, with deep suspicion, and finally, using a mine detector he located the tap cable, running under his lawn and yanked it up with considerable zeal.
History’s first wire tap is supposed to have taken place in 1895 when a cop, who had been a telephone lineman at one time, suggested to his betters that it might be a good idea to tap the line of a gangster they were having trouble getting the goods on. There were few phones in those days and consequently few taps, and the phone company pleasantly obliged the police by allowing them to place their taps right in the company’s plants.
The tap honeymoon came to a sharp end in 1916. The mayor of New York was investigating Catholic charities to determine whether they were undermining the New York Charity Commission. When it was revealed that as part of his investigation, and with the cooperation of the telephone company, he had put a tap on the phone of a Catholic priest, the citizenry became indignantly aroused. Legislation banning wire tapping might have been passed right then and there if World War I hadn’t come along and distracted the boiling citizens.
However, after the War and into the ‘20’s, when the U.S. embarked on a great crusade against domestic communists, wire taps were used regularly with no objection. But when Prohibition agents started tapping bootleggers’ phones, that was something else. The howl went up again, probably because no one wanted to lose his whisky source.
By 1934, wire tapping in connection with spying on the unions had become so prevalent, and the unions were complaining so bitterly that a wire-tapping law was finally put into effect. This is the law which is in force today.
At the time, everyone thought that this put the finisher on wire tapping, but the curious thing is that despite its strong language, the law has been studiously circumvented by government agencies and individuals alike, and only one person, a lawyer named Jacob Gruber, has ever been convicted under it.
But wire tapping is kid stuff compared to a new electronic eye called a “Utiliscope,” which I saw demonstrated. This is, in effect, a miniature TV camera and it can be set into any wall recess.
Why haven’t more individuals been convicted? Listen to Robert H. Jackson when he was attorney general of the U.S.: “I do not feel that the Department of Justice can in good conscience prosecute persons for a practice engaged in by the Department itself, and regarded as legal by the Department.”
Why have government men deliberately flaunted the law? Because a couple of hours on somebody’s else’s telephone can often achieve the equivalent of weeks of bona fide investigative work – work that often ends unsatisfactorily. Thus, ever since 1934, a succession of attorneys general, with the aplomb of characters out of Gilbert & Sullivan, comic operas, have announced a succession of devious loopholes through which they have, so far, jumped successfully.
The latest of these interpretations of Section 605, and the one under which we now operate was described by Jackson during his attorney generalship:
“There is no Federal statute that prohibits or punishes wire tapping alone,” he intoned. “Any person, with no risk of penalty, may tap telephone wires and eavesdrop on his competitor, employer, workman, or others and act upon what he hears or make any use of it that does not involve divulging or publication.”
There you have it. Wire tapping, per se, is not illegal. You simply cannot divulge or publish it.
But this is only federal law. As far as the states are concerned, only a few of them prohibit the use of wire-tap evidence in court. More than thirty states permit wire tapping and allow it to be used as evidence. Several others follow the New York rule of allowing wire taps when permission has been granted by a judge. Attorney General Brownell would now like the federal law repealed to allow wire tapping at his discretion.
As the argument over wire tapping roars around the country, the frantic circle of tapping and being tapped runs on. One harried New York thug thought he had a sure thing – he made all his calls from a phone booth in the lobby of the Y.M.C.A. Downstairs, a copy sitting in an easy chair and smoking a cigar patiently recorded his every word on his tape machine.
But wire tapping is kid stuff compared to a new electronic eye called a “Utiliscope,” which I saw demonstrated. This is, in effect, a miniature TV camera and it can be set into any wall recess. When turned on, its “eye” transmits everything it sees to a receiving screen. These devices, which are surprisingly inexpensive, will get the visual as well as the auditory goods on suspects.