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Bugs hard to get, experts say

Planting the devices, which can be attached to appliances, requires a court order.

By DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 1999


TAMPA -- It was December 1997, just days after Sabrina Aisenberg disappeared, and Hillsborough sheriff's detectives suspected her parents.

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They sent prosecutors to Hillsborough Chief Circuit Judge F. Dennis Alvarez with an extraordinary request: They wanted to put a bug in a Hillsborough County home connected to a possible kidnapping.

Records show that Alvarez granted the request, issuing an order on Dec. 12, 1997, authorizing the planting of a micro-eavesdrop device.

The order, filed with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts in Washington, does not specify the Aisenberg home by name or address. It notes that the device would be placed in a single-family home in Hillsborough County to gather evidence in a kidnapping case. It was the only such order entered in either 1997 or 1998 in Hillsborough County.

Alvarez's initial order granted authorities permission to eavesdrop for 30 days. He extended it twice for a total of 90 days, ending in mid-March 1998. Based on recordings of their conversations, federal authorities Thursday charged the Aisenbergs with making false statements about their daughter's disappearance.

The micro-eavesdrop bug that Alvarez authorized was the kind that picks up conversations from inside someone's house. According to Michael Peros, chief technician at Privacy Electronics in Pinellas Park, the bug works this way:

Agents wire the device to the electric lines of an appliance like a lamp or stereo, which is positioned prominently in a bedroom to pick up conversations. They choose an appliance plugged into an outlet, which allows the bug to use electricity. The recordings travel outside the house through power lines, where agents can pick up the conversations from a post miles away.

This type of bug does not record phone conversations.

If a state judge indeed approved bugging the Aisenbergs' house, it might help attorney Barry Cohen get the recordings thrown out in court, said former FBI agents who have worked on similar cases. A federal judge would now have to review whether a state judge properly authorized the eavesdropping.

"Bugs and wiretaps are generally pretty rare, much more so than people think," said Jim Felman, a defense attorney in Tampa.

Wiretaps are difficult to obtain, said Felman, because they require a showing of probable cause to a judge that a crime has been committed, or is being committed.

Moreover, wiretaps tend to be costly because law enforcement personnel must monitor them and review tapes.

"It sort of is a last resort," said Al Scuderi, a 30-year FBI veteran who nows works as an investigator at the law firm of James, Hoyer & Newcomer in Tampa. "You have to have a finding of probable cause and (show) that all other means have been exhausted."

Judges review reports on electronic eavesdropping every 30 days to decide whether the bugging should continue, he said. Federal law also requires agents to stop listening to conversation unrelated to a criminal case.

Hillsborough criminal defense lawyer George Tragos said much of the talk at the federal courthouse Friday was about how quickly the authorities received permission to bug the Aisenbergs' home.

"That's like lightning," he said.

Former FBI agents said it's much easier to get approval from a state court for bugs, particularly when cases such as the Aisenbergs' begin with local law enforcement agencies. On the federal level, agents must often get approval from the Justice Department in Washington to seek a court order.

"You have to get your things screened by levels of bureaucracy," Scuderi said. "The local system moves much faster. ... When you are dealing with the sheriff's office, you can walk into a local judge that is familiar with you."

Even so, state judges who issue court orders permitting bugging must follow laws that are just as rigorous as similar federal laws, defense attorney Stephen Crawford said.

It's possible that authorities used other types of bugs to record the Aisenbergs' conversations, although security experts interviewed Friday didn't think it likely.

Cohen said he did not have the Aisenberg home swept for listening devices.

"Why the hell would we sweep the place?" Cohen said. "I wasn't even thinking about the place. I knew there was nothing incriminating going to be said. I wasn't worried about it."

Besides the micro-eavesdrop device, other spy gadgets include remote bugs that transmit conversation through the airwaves. Another option is a laser beam pointed at a window to pick up conversations.

But both of those type of bugs comes with problems. Remote bugs can be easily detected through the airwaves, and they quickly lose power if operated by a battery. The laser beam also can be picked up easily. The beam must be a few thousand feet from a window and must be aimed directly at the glass.

"There is such technology, but it is not dependable," said George Krout, a FBI agent and technical adviser for 33 years who is now a private investigator. "That's more James Bond stuff."


-- Times staff writers Graham Brink, Sue Carlton and Larry Dougherty contributed to this report.

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