Federal authorities are taking advantage of the Patriot Act to place more wiretaps Tennessee, civil libertarians said.
But law enforcement chalked up the increase to more aggressive investigations, not indiscriminate use of the controversial federal law.
Federal authorities spent more than $1 million on 13 wiretaps in Tennessee in 2003, resulted in 56 arrests. All were used for mobile phone surveillance in narcotics investigations
There were just seven wiretaps the year before, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
The increase follows a national trend, where wiretap requests increased 19 percent in 2003 from the previous year.
Hedy Weinberg, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Tennessee, said the Patriot Act gives federal authorities more leeway when requesting wiretaps and surveillance equipment.
"I think that is something we can assume based on the numbers," she said. "We know, with all those wiretaps requested, none were turned down."
Records indicate federal judges approved all wiretap requests brought before them.
Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice, U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Tennessee, however, said the Patriot Act is not driving the increase.
"There are more terrorism cases being investigated, but I believe the uptick represents more aggressiveness by law enforcement," he said.
The court that handles all terrorism requests, including those in Tennessee, said it received 1,727 requests last year nationally for electronic surveillance. The court approved all but three.
Patriot Act critics say it is being used in ways never intended and removes judicial oversight on whether a wiretap is necessary.
Weinberg said requests are being "rubber-stamped."
Mattice said the Patriot Act is being used in regular criminal cases, not just those with a link to terrorism.
"I contend it should be used in all areas of criminal activity to include terrorism," he said. "There is no problem if it doesn't infringe on civil rights."
Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com