Europeans love warrantless wiretaps.

Europeans love warrantless wiretaps.

Europeans love warrantless wiretaps.

Lessons for the U.S. from abroad.
Feb. 14 2006 6:39 AM

Wiretapping, European-Style

Think Bush's warrantless NSA surveillance is bad? Wait till you hear what the British government does.

For Europeans, scolding the Bush administration for everything from Guantanamo to the Iraq War to secret CIA prisons has become a full-time job. But when it comes to the American scandal over President Bush's warrantless wiretaps, there's been a curious reaction from the other side of the Atlantic: silence. Where is the European outrage?

European restraint may arise from a fear of hypocrisy. The fact is that in much of Europe wiretapping is de rigueur—practiced more regularly and with less oversight than in the United States. Most Europeans either don't know about this or, more likely, simply don't care. 


The extensive European taps are not new developments, made in the heat of passion after the London and Madrid bombings. European governments have been bugging phones for decades. In theory, the European Convention on Human Rights forbids "arbitrary wiretapping," but, as we've learned in the United States, arbitrary is in the ear of the wiretapper.

The three worst offenders are not countries you would suspect of playing fast and loose with civil liberties: Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. Italian officials conduct tens of thousands of wiretaps each year. Technically, judicial approval is needed but since judges in Italy are "investigative," meaning they act more like our prosecutors, there is essentially no check on law enforcement's ability to eavesdrop.

In Britain, police have an even easier time tapping phones. The home secretary, a Cabinet minister, approves all wiretaps. Judges have nothing to do with it.

Or, to put it in American terms, imagine Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff authorizing wiretaps of anyone he deems fit—only without the pesky questions from the media and Congress.

Gus Hosein, an analyst with Privacy International, calculates that, given the number of wiretaps in the U.K., the home secretary approves a new wiretap every few seconds. "Obviously, it's impossible to give it the attention it needs," says Hosein. Britain did recently establish an Interception of Communications Commissioner, but he has limited authority; his main job is tallying the number of annual wiretaps. The only Brits safe from wiretapping are members of Parliament, though after the London bombing, there is now a move afoot to revoke their immunity.

Britain's lax attitude toward telephone privacy dates back to the 1920s, when the British government owned the phone company. There was no need for court approval of wiretaps, since, in a way, the government would be asking itself for that approval.       

The Netherlands has the highest rate of wiretapping of any European country—a surprising fact, given the country's reputation for cozy coffee bars, not invasive police tactics. Dutch police can tap any phone they like, so long as the crime under investigation carries at least a three-year jail term.

Washington's biggest European critic—France—also has a serious wiretapping habit, as Marc Perelman points out in Foreign Policy: "In addition to judicially ordered taps there are also 'administrative wiretaps' decided by security agencies under the control of the government." Perelman argues that most French know about these policies but don't seem to care, despite clear cases of abuse in the past. Most prominent is the Elysée Scandal—named after the palace where the late President Francois Mitterrand set up an undercover listening room. * Mitterrand's operatives tapped the calls of his political enemies: lawyers, businessmen, journalists, and even the actress and Chanel model Carole Bouquet. This took place in the mid-1980s but only surfaced recently, and 12 conspirators were brought to trial. What's interesting—and disturbing—about the Elysée Scandal is that at the time, French authorities had justified the surveillance as a necessary tool to fight terrorism.