The number of wiretaps used by the US government continues to rise at a rapid pace. Last year, federal agencies received judicial approval to tap or bug 208 suspected criminals, according to a report of the Administrative Office of the US Courts. That's a 60 percent increase in eavesdropping over 1982.
After three years of marching steadily upwards, the level of federal wiretapping is now close to its 1971 peak.
Federal officials, including FBI Director William Webster, contend that increased use of wiretaps and other sensitive techniques is needed to combat today's sophisticated criminal groups.
On average, each of these federal taps overheard 147 people, says the report, and cost $65,300 in equipment and salaries. The vast majority of them were planted to investigate violations of US narcotics laws. Single family homes were the location most frequently tapped.
As for the taps' usefulness, about 16 percent of conversations intercepted in 1983 by US agencies were judged ''incriminating.''
The Justice Department's most dramatic eavesdropping effort last year was probably one which tapped radical Katherine Boudin and others thought involved in a 1981 Brink's truck robbery.
This eavesdropping cost $2 million and involved 50 agents. It listened in on calls placed from an acupuncture clinic and a pay phone, among other places.
Meanwhile, state and county prosecutors have gradually cut their use of wiretaps over the last three years.