By contrast with what is currently being revealed in Hartford, Conn., during pretrial hearings in the 1983 $7 million Wells Fargo robbery, the FBI was quite circumspect during its Abscam capers. The agents back then planted bugs and miniature television cameras in hotel rooms and private homes, but they never monitored a suspect in the act of love. The FBI, however, is always intent on improving itself.

Now, as reported by George Gombossy in the Hartford Courant, FBI agents -- using court-authorized wiretaps and tiny electronic transmitters hidden in living rooms, a bedroom and cars -- have recorded, among other things, suspects making love to their wives, according to defense lawyers in the Wells Fargo case. The court has turned over to the defense hundreds of hours of these tapes.

Court records also show the FBI recorded a telephone conversation between a suspect and her psychotherapist on what she was going to be talking about at the next session. Friends and relatives -- who were not targets of the FBI investigation but were using the suspect's telephone -- had also been taped discussing love affairs, finances and their favorite movies.

At least twice, the ever resourceful FBI recorded a couple in Puerto Rico taking a shower together, according to the Courant (most of the defendants are allegedly leaders of Los Macheteros, a militant underground Puerto Rican nationalist cadre).

While law enforcement agents have a lot of leeway in their eavesdropping, the law does say that when an agent hears something he is not authorized by warrant to monitor, he must shut off the machine. Or, if he keeps it running, he must only tune in intermittently until the conversation returns to what he is there to pick up. It's called "minimization."

Does anyone in the J. Edgar Hoover Building monitor the monitors in the field? Anyway, Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the House subcommittee that has oversight of the FBI, plans to hold hearings both on the failure to obey the law and also on the reasons for all this prying by the state into what goes on in the most private of spheres.

The reason, say defense lawyers, is that the FBI wanted to collect material for "personality profiles" that its behavioral science unit could use to brief agents on how best to manipulate the defendants once they were arrested.

For months, prosecutors in the case denied that any such profiles had been made; but finally, in May, government lawyers allowed as how some of the material from the wiretaps and transmitters had indeed been used to fill out the two-part, 12-page forms that deal with sexual activities and preferences, and whether the suspect is liberal, conservative, "a general all around good guy," or "soft, moody, a whiner."

Although the prosecution claimed that a purpose of the forms was to measure the suspect's potential for violence before he was taken in, nowhere in the forms is there a category dealing with proclivity for violence. There isn't even a question as to whether the suspect is known to carry weapons.

The defense attorneys' dark suspicion is that the aim of the personality profiles is to gather enough compromising information to blackmail the defendant into cooperating with the prosecution, or to discredit the defendant.

I called FBI headquarters to get an official response, and was told, "There will be no comment at all because it's an ongoing legal matter." Well, then, could I anticipate a comment about the profiles and the omnivorous bugs when the trial is over? The answer: "At this point in time we do not comment on any pending legal matters." Hello? Hello?

Jerry Berman, the American Civil Liberties Union's expert on the FBI and the law, points out that the FBI is empowered to gather evidence of criminal activity. "But what happened in this case," he says, "goes far beyond evidence of any specific criminal activity. It also undermines that part of the law which mandates that wiretapping be as minimally intrusive as possible. Furthermore, the kind of material gathered in this case can, in the wrong hands, lead to enormous abuse."

Louis Brandeis often warned that wiretapping and its stealthy cousins would lead to great abuses of privacy. And he predicted that "ways may someday be developed by which government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, {exposing} to the jury the most intimate occurrences of the home."

I wonder how far along the FBI's laboratories are on that project.