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What happens in Vegas... may be getting wiretapped

Published time: July 17, 2014 02:36
Las Vegas Strip.(Reuters / Richard Brian)

Las Vegas Strip.(Reuters / Richard Brian)

Welcome to Las Vegas, where the ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’ is also the wiretapping capital of the country, according to a new report unveiling the number of wiretap authorizations by law enforcement in each state.

The Administrative Office of US Courts (AO) released its annual report to Congress this week, highlighting intercepted wire, oral, or electronic communications. The Wiretap Report 2013 is a compilation of data provided by federal and state officials on orders authorizing or approving the various forms of wiretapping for the calendar year. It does not cover interceptions regulated by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the type of surveillance used by the National Security Agency and made famous by documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden.

According to the report, the number of federal and state wiretaps increased five percent between 2012 and 2013, for a total of 3,576 authorizations last year. Of those, about 40 percent were approved by federal judges, with the rest approved by courts at the state level.

When it came to the main offense cited in each wiretap authorization request, 87 percent were for criminal drug-related offenses, followed by “other major offenses” - which includes smuggling and money laundering - at 3.9 percent, and homicide and assault at 3.7 percent.

As the most populous state in the country, California had the most overall interception requests, with 26 percent of the country’s total. New York came in second with 12 percent, while Nevada and Florida had six percent each.

However, when the wiretaps were broken down per capita, Nevada far and away led the nation, with 38 mobile wiretaps for every 500,000 people, according to the Pew Research Center, who parsed the statistics from the AO report. Of the authorizations in the Silver State, most (187) were in Clark County, home of Las Vegas and nearly three-quarters of the state’s population.

“Why are there so many wiretaps in Nevada? We don’t really know: Law-enforcement officials in the state didn’t respond to our inquiries,” the Pew Research Center wrote in its analysis. “The state does have the second-highest violent-crime rate in 2012, with 607.6 incidents per 100,000 people, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.”

Wiretapping has historically been a powerful tool in the arsenal of the Las Vegas Police Department, and Sin City would be a very different (and probably more sinful) place without it, historians told KVVU.

"Las Vegas could still conceivably have more organized crime than it does if not for this technological advance that allows them to listen to mobsters," Geoff Schumacher, director of content development for the Mob Museum in downtown Las Vegas, said to the Fox affiliate.

During the 1970s, organized crime ruled the Strip, and mobsters like Anthony Spilotro were taken down by telephone wiretaps.

Vegas is fast becoming the drug distribution point for the US, according to Kent Bitsko, the executive director of Nevada's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.

"When we do them through wiretaps instead of working midlevel, we target the highest person in that organization and take them apart from the top down," Bitsko said.

He added that communications intercepts allow the federally funded program to stop high-profile drug crime by alerting law enforcement when narcotics shipments will arrive. “We're able to seize more drugs," he said.

Bitsko believes that the use of prepaid cell phones, nicknamed burners, increases the wiretapping requests because law enforcement has to obtain a new authorization every time a suspect begins using a new phone.