1968 June 19

First Federal Wiretapping Law Enacted; President Johnson Objects in Signing Statement


Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, passed by Congress on this day, was the first U. S. law authorizing wiretapping. The law requires prosecutors to obtain a warrant from a judge and to demonstrate that there is probable cause that a crime is being committee or is about to be committed. Before the law was passed, there was extensive wiretapping by federal, state and local authorities, but it occurred in a legal limbo.

President Lyndon Johnson opposed the wiretapping provision of the law, and on two occasions forbade federal agencies to engage in it (June 30, 1965; June 16, 1967). He signed the crime bill into law because it contained many provisions he thought were extremely important. His signing statement, however, contained a strong statement opposing the wiretapping provision: “But the Congress, in my judgment, has taken an unwise and potentially dangerous step by sanctioning eavesdropping and wiretapping by Federal, State, and local law officials in an almost unlimited variety of situations.” 

For important background, see the Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. United States (June 4, 1928), involving a prohibition from enforcement-related wiretapping, in which Justice Louis Brandeis delivered a dissent with an eloquent statement about a right to privacy. See also the Supreme Court decision in Nardone v. United States, in which the Court held that wiretapping was a violation of the 1934 Communications Act (December 20, 1937). For the extensive use of wiretapping by the FBI prior to this date, see the report of the Senate Church Committee on abuses of the rights of Americans (see the link below).

Read President Johnson’s signing statement regarding Title III and wiretappinghttp://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=28939

Learn more about wiretapping: Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau, Privacy on the Line: the Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption (1999)

Learn more about surveillance and privacy: https://www.aclu.org/national-security/surveillance-privacy

Read the Church Committee report on FBI wiretapping: http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/contents/church/contents_church_reports_book3.htm

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

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