Americans should be outraged that telecommunications companies simply handed over customers' private communications at the request of the federal government as part of the National Security Agency's secret surveillance program. The companies were in such a hurry to salute that they turned over records of telephone calls and e-mail without so much as a court warrant.
But should the companies be held liable?
Connecticut's U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd thinks so. He fought hard and nobly against a surveillance program that was "the single largest invasion of privacy in the history of the country," he has said.
The senator's arguments are compelling. But they're aimed at the wrong culprits.
Since Sept. 11, with help from a compliant Congress, the administration has banged the gong of fear and terrorism to justify running roughshod over constitutional provisions for the balance of powers and rights to privacy.
Evidently, the tactic still works.
Last week, Mr. Dodd's colleagues in the Senate agreed to reauthorize a breathtaking expansion of the government's powers of secret surveillance. Under the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, intelligence agencies have had a lot of latitude to monitor the communications of foreign terrorism suspects. But they needed warrants from a FISA court to do it. The Senate bill would make permanent a law approved in August allowing the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless eavesdropping on phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States who are communicating overseas.
America's laws on eavesdropping may need reforms. But Congress must make certain that any expansion of powers also provides for expanded judicial oversight and authority.
Difficult times test a nation's character. That goes for citizens, corporate leaders and politicians.
Some telecommunications companies resisted the White House's gong-banging and, in the absence of a warrant, refused to turn over records. Others, including AT&T and Sprint Nextel Corp., succumbed. That's judgment enough.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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