By Brad Heath and Brett Kelman / USA TODAY
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Prosecutors in a Los Angeles suburb say they have dramatically scaled back a vast and legally questionable eavesdropping operation, built by federal drug agents, that once accounted for nearly a fifth of all U.S. wiretaps.
The wiretapping, authorized by prosecutors and a single state-court judge in Riverside County, alarmed privacy advocates and even some U.S. Justice Department lawyers, who warned that it was likely illegal. An investigation last year by The Desert Sun and USA TODAY found that the operation almost certainly violated federal wiretapping laws while using millions of secretly intercepted calls and texts to make hundreds of arrests nationwide.
Riverside’s district attorney, Mike Hestrin, acknowledged being concerned by the scope of that surveillance, and said he enacted “significant” reforms last summer to rein it in. Wiretap figures his office released this week offer the first evidence that the enormous eavesdropping program has wound down to more routine levels.
“I definitely don’t apologize for using this tool to hit the cartels in Riverside County,” said Hestrin, who took office last year. “I think the reforms I put in place were necessary, but this is still a tool that I believe in. It needs to be used cautiously, but it should be available when necessary.”
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