1939 December 11

“Nardone v. United States”: Supreme Court Limits Wiretapping


The Supreme Court on this day ruled for a second time, on separate issues, in the case of Nardone v. United States. The first case was decided on December 20, 1937, and in both the decisions the Court ruled that wiretapping was a violation of the 1934 Federal Communications Act and that evidence so obtained was not admissible in a criminal trial.

The most significant consequence of the decision on this day is that on May 21, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt advised FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that the Supreme Court’s decision did not apply in national security cases (a point the Court in fact did not address) and that he should ignore it. Every president following Roosevelt also authorized FBI wiretapping. Harry Truman and his administration defended the practice on July 17, 1946 and January 9, 1950. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Attorney General Herbert Brownell did so on May 20, 1954. For President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized wiretaps on civil rights leader Martin Luther King on October 10, 1963. And President Lyndon Johnson ordered the FBI to spy on civil rights activists at the 1964 Democratic Party Convention on August 25, 1963. President Richard Nixon placed wiretaps on members of his own National Security Council staff, on May 9, 1969, in an effort to identify the source of leaks about U.S. bombing in Cambodia.

Read the Senate Church Committee report on FBI wiretapping (pp. 273–352)http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/book3/contents.htm

Learn more about wiretapping from the Electronic Frontier Foundation: https://ssd.eff.org/wire/govt/wiretapping-protections

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