Wiretap panel recommends legislation restricting police eavesdropping

Ex police investigations head opposes government intervention, but hails "professional, judicial monitoring" of matter.

wiretapping 88 (photo credit: )
wiretapping 88
(photo credit: )
After years of scandals in which powerful political figures have been targeted by police wiretappers, the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee into Wiretapping delivered its conclusions Sunday, recommending that strict constraints be placed on police prior to and during the use of wiretapping as an investigative tool. Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) said the committee had tried to "close the holes in the law" in order to strike a balance between the investigative benefits of wiretapping and the dangers of violating subjects' rights to privacy. The recommendations of the committee - which was formed in the wake of the wiretapping scandal involving Vice Premier Haim Ramon - are expected to be brought for approval Monday during a special session of the Knesset plenum on Operation Cast Lead and the subsequent cease-fire in Gaza. The plenum is expected to approve the recommendations, in which case they will be passed on to the Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, which will formulate an amendment to the current law. In general, the recommendations seek to establish greater judicial oversight of wiretapping, forcing a higher level of police accountability in justifying the necessity of wiretapping in individual cases. The committee recommended anchoring in law the requirement that courts permit wiretapping only after considering the seriousness of the offense, the strength of the suspicion, the connection between the subject and the offense, and the length of the wiretap. If the wiretap lasts for over six months, investigators need to request approval from the police's chief of investigations and intelligence, who can only consider the request if a court has already determined that the wiretap is essential for the investigation or that it could prevent a crime from being committed. In addition, police must inform the courts if the wiretaps are likely to pick up protected conversations, such as those involving attorneys, MKs or psychologists. If such conversations are picked up, they must be brought before a judge immediately to determine whether specific lines of transcript may be passed on to the police or are inadmissible due to immunity or protected speech. Police will also be required to submit all of their petitions on wiretapping to local courts in the investigation area to avoid instances of police attorneys seeking more lenient judges. The committee also recommended establishing a forum of investigative and legal experts to follow the execution of the law and discuss questions that may arise in the future. The committee was established after two retired judges - Shalom Brener and Vardi Zeiler - both looked into police behavior during the Ramon investigation. In that case, the police were found to have concealed the existence of wiretaps and their transcripts from Ramon and the attorney defending him against sexual harassment charges. In addition, the same wiretaps were used for other investigations, including probes of the Israel Tax Authority. Former police head of investigations Cmdr. (Ret.) Moshe Mizrahi is well-acquainted with the controversies surrounding police wiretapping operations. Mizrahi led the wiretapping of Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman during 1998-99, when the latter served as transportation minister. Lieberman was suspected of dealing in international trade and of having links with the criminal world, and Mizrahi received a green light from the Tel Aviv District Court to eavesdrop on his conversations. But the investigation went sour after Mizrahi was accused of listening in on conversations unrelated to the investigation, an accusation that became the subject of an inquiry ordered by former Attorney-General Elyakim Rubinstein. Mizrahi was eventually forced out of his position by then-public security minister Gideon Ezra, in a move seen by some as an attempt to stifle the police's abilities to listen in on politicians. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Mizrahi said he opposed governmental intervention in police eavesdropping powers, but favored "professional, judicial monitoring." "Following on from my own famous story, the question is what sort of mechanism is put in place, and will it bind the police's hands?" Mizrahi said. Mizrahi said he supported the idea of anchoring in legislation court supervision of police eavesdropping. But he questioned the Knesset committee's recommendation to appoint a police officer to supervise the writing of transcripts based on the recordings. "I don't really understand this particular proposal. It won't guarantee a thing," Mizrahi said. "There is already an officer in charge of writing the transcripts, and he answers to a superior officer above him." He suggested that "the state comptroller or the Justice Ministry should do the supervising. They could perhaps have on-line access to the recordings, instead of receiving statistical reports, as has been the practice for years."