Feature Articles

May 2011
Surveillance Techniques

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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"Turn on any cop show, and the surveillance always seems straightforward. There are always a couple of guys in a van and maybe two in a car outside some apartment building. But the truth is real surveillance is much more subtle. It's about blending in. It's about artifice."
(Dina Temple-Raston, FBI)

• • •

"The more bold and direct surveillance is practised by the police, the more will the mafia and camorra, in all their branches decline, and, we may hope, finally disappear."
(L. Wolffsohn, Naples, Italy, April 1891)

     In 1968, Congress passed Title III, a law authorizing the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to engage in the bugging and wire tapping of criminal suspects. In the early 1970s, the FBI's Detroit field office established the Bureau's first full-time surveillance squad. The squad was dedicated to physical surveillance (fisur) of members of the Detroit mob. FBI electronic surveillance (fisur) would come later.

     Since their first introductions, and successive improvements overtime in improved technology and hit-and-miss field experience, surveillance systems have successfully gathered culpable evidence against criminals, resulting in significant convictions.

     In the early days, surveillance methods were simple and obvious. Suspects were watched, followed and their activities duly noted. Informers and witnesses were often crucial to building watertight criminal cases. Since that era, the electronic revolution has produced an inventory of high-tech methods-wiretaps, miniaturized bugs, videos-to monitor suspects fulltime without detection. With each attempt by suspects to thwart surveillance methods, agents have devised new ways to the break the silence that surrounds the underworld despite often clever subterfuges.

     Authorities can bring into play a host of observational techniques along with the necessary favorable legislation, which permits the use of intrusive methods, broadly interpreted racketeering statutes, with the threat of stiff sentences (see (RICO). All of these anti-crime weapons at the disposal of the criminal justice system represent a formidable arsenal against the mobster, who depends on guile and secrecy for success in his chosen profession.

     A metaphor for investigative data is that they represent pieces of a puzzle, each piece adding up eventually, when put in their proper places, to a perspective on the phenomenon, both on the organizational and individual levels. Mobs with a documented history and mobsters with a dossier are at greater risk of investigation and adjudication. No matter the ingenuity of the crime group as changing conditions dictate, investigative methods have not lagged behind, at least as far as USA policing is concerned.

     Bugs small enough to be hidden first appeared in the 1950s, and today have reached a state of near perfection. Eavesdropping on private conversations with the tiny devices has yielded very promising results. To cite one example, mob chief Anthony Corallo's car was bugged to see what would be revealed when it became apparent from systematic observation it was a location where mob business took place. A bug was installed in the dashboard and for months relayed conversations between Corallo and his cohorts. The data collected were primary in building iron-clad cases that would not otherwise have been possible.

     Another well-known instance was the successful installation of a tiny listening device in the home of Paul Castellano, one of New York City's eminent crime lords. The FBI learned from informers that he used his palatial place to conduct business, usually around the kitchen table. The house was a fortress; placing a bug where it would do the most good required much ingenuity. The property was walled. Burglar alarms, sensors and closed-circuit video cameras were set, and to add to the challenge of secret entry, floodlights illuminated the grounds at night and vicious guard dogs patrolled against intruders.

     A ploy was finally devised. The FBI cut off the house cable television service. Then an agent disguised as a cable repairman arrived to fix what by all appearances was a service malfunction. Tiny electronic microphones and wires were installed and captured a series of interesting conversations not always related to mob business.

     From shoe leather street surveillance to the electronic era, significant inroads have been made to break the reach of organized crime. The old days are gone, in many respects, never to return, although new challenges appear calling for new forms of policing. Battles are won, yet the war continues. To claim victory or a road to victory as has been done in the past (see the quote by L. Wolffsohn, in 1891, at the beginning of this article) too often have turned out to be premature. The mobster phenomenon has resilience, an ability to regroup and bounce back as new and richer opportunities emerge (e.g., the Internet, globalism), and new generations, more cunning then the previous, come of age.

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