About six times a week, 52 weeks a year, a team of highly trained FBI agents secretly breaks into a house, office, or warehouse somewhere in the United States. The agents are members of the bureau's Surreptitious Entry Program and their usual mission is to plant a hidden microphone or camera without tipping off the people who occupy the targeted structure.

FBI officials refuse to discuss, even in the most general way, the operations of these clandestine hit squads. It would seem likely that their reticence, at least in part, is based on the thought that it is dumb to alert the bad guys. Another explanation, however, might be old-fashioned public relations. Gentlemen, after all, do not read other gentlemen's mail.

Whatever the reason for the official silence, the intelligence picked up by the electronic surveillance equipment planted by the special squads must have considerable value to the FBI and the Justice Department for whom the bureau works. How else can one explain the six-fold increase in the number of clandestine break-ins during the last few years: 300 a year in 1993, compared to 47 a year in 1985? How else can one comprehend the bureau's 1993 decision to invest a substantial sum, about $27 million, in classified research to develop the tools and methods the agents need to defeat the advanced alarms and locks employed by some of those whose property it seeks to invade?

According to a secret FBI budget document, each raid involves a time-consuming four-step process. First, the bureau field office that wants electronic surveillance defines its requirements. Then the Surreptitious Entry agents assigned to carry out the mission prepare themselves by secretly inspecting the target and taking additional steps such as obtaining the building's architectural drawings. Next, the team members assemble the special tools they will need to enter the facility and acquire the custom-made surveillance gear that they eventually will leave behind in the target's home or office. Finally comes "the entry itself, which may include multiple entries over a period of several days/nights."[1]

It appears that in the last few years this unusual law enforcement specialty -- now almost always practiced on behalf of a Justice Department prosecutor -- has become even more challenging than it was a few decades ago, when such raids were referred to by macho bureau agents as "black bag jobs." The FBI blames its current difficulties on the security industry, asserting that the central problem has been the development of clever new alarm systems that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to silence. Adding to the bureau's woes, it claims, are computer-controlled locking devices that generate a record each time someone attempts to penetrate a guarded area and instantly transmit a coded warning to a central surveillance post any time an intrusion is attempted.

Motivated, perhaps, by the need to justify its pricey $27 million research proposal mentioned in the budget document, the FBI went so far as to suggest it actually was losing the security race: that some individuals in the enemy camp already were outfoxing the bureau. "The FBI has traditionally focused on exploiting the mechanical aspects of locks and alarm systems," the bureau explained. "Increasingly, FBI surreptitious entry teams are encountering complex and multiple physical security systems at target locations. Drug traffickers, in particular, are going to extraordinary lengths to protect their premises and property. The FBI has fallen significantly behind in its ability to defeat modern electronics-based locking systems and the latest multi-laser technologies."[2]

This was the central justification offered by the FBI when a couple of years ago it asked the White House for the $27 million in public funds to pay the engineering whizzes at the Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories and several other government research facilities to develop ways to defeat "any locking system whether it be mechanical or electronic, or computer supplemented" and to identify and overcome the "countersurveillance [equipment] deployed by subjects inside and in close proximity to targets."

The FBI document repeatedly emphasized that the bureau break-ins -- undertaken on behalf of itself, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and other unnamed government agencies -- were carried out only with the permission of a judge under federal laws authorizing the surveillance of individuals suspected of being domestic criminals or spies.

While these official assurances are heartwarming, it must be recalled that from the years just before World War Two until the mid-1970s there were hundreds -- more probably thousands -- of instances when the bureau used its very special skills to commit illegal political burglaries of the offices and homes of senators, civil rights activists, former White House staff members, political advocacy groups and other organizations and individuals.

The unlawfulness of these past operations is not in doubt. William C. Sullivan, the FBI official responsible for many of the break-ins during the late 1960s and early 1970s, should have won the frankness award of 1966 when he wrote a famous "Do Not File" memo to the bureau's number two boss, Cartha D. DeLoach. "We do not obtain authorization for `black bag' jobs outside the Bureau," Sullivan explained. "Such a technique involves a trespass and is clearly illegal; therefore, it would be impossible to obtain any legal sanction for it."[3]

In fairness to the FBI, however, Sullivan overstated his proposition just a bit. While it is true that the black bag jobs of the past were not sanctioned by law, at least some of them were undertaken with the implicit approval and private encouragement of either the president, the attorney general, or influential members of Congress.

Even in today's far more cautious environment -- which emerged from the humiliations of the Church Committee's 1975-1976 investigations -- the FBI's electronic surveillance still can go wrong. In early 1994, for example, despite approvals by many layers of a bureau supervisors, a United States Attorney, and a senior Justice Department official in Washington, a federal judge in Kansas City threw out most of the evidence in a major white collar-crime cases because it was based on an unlawful wiretap. The judge found that in this particular case there were two serious problems with the bureau's eavesdropping . First, the FBI affidavit requesting authorization to conduct the electronic surveillance "presented a disturbing pattern of material misstatements, overstatements and omissions designed to mislead the issuing federal district court" about the legal status of the proposed wiretap. Second, the judge ruled, the agents who conducted the 300 hours of secret eavesdropping had violated basic provisions of the law that required them to limit their secret recording only to the discussions of criminal events and mandated the elimination of the privileged conversations that occurred between one of the targets of the investigation and his lawyer.[4]

In recent years at least, the usual purpose of the secret break-ins appears to have been the installation of various kinds of hidden recording devices. Electronic surveillance, however, has not always been the goal. During the course of the FBI's lengthy investigation of the Socialist Workers Party, for example, bureau agents made 193 illegal raids on the group's offices and the homes of several of its members, during which they removed or photographed more than 9,000 documents. Detailed information about the investigation of Socialist Workers was pried out of the FBI during 1985 New York hearings presided over by Federal Judge Thomas P. Griesa as a result of the party's suit against the government. In his final opinion on the case, the judge held that the FBI's investigation -- including the bureau's 193 secret raids and its collection of information from 1,300 informants -- had been conducted without "statutory or regulatory authority" and thus was "patently unconstitutional." He ordered the government to pay the members $264,000 for damages, and noted that although the group's rhetoric frequently was inflammatory, no party members ever were charged with a crime.[5]