March 18, 2010

Congress shouldn't let phone companies off the hook

— A year and a half ago, 22 Mainers filed a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission asking the PUC to investigate whether Verizon Maine was turning over their phone records to the government without a warrant.

Within a week, 400 Mainers had signed on to a letter in support of the complaint.

In response to that complaint, Verizon issued several press releases denying that it ever provided Maine customer information to the federal government.

When the Maine PUC asked Verizon to affirm the truth of its press releases by a written affidavit under oath, the federal government sued the Maine PUC to block it from finding out the truth. In August of this year, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the El Paso Times that yes, of course U.S. telecom companies had cooperated with the government's warrantless surveillance program.

In October, Verizon revealed it was no exception. McConnell disclosed phone company involvement in the context of advocating for immunity from legal recourse for the companies that helped the government spy on Americans.

Now, it looks as though he might get his wish.

As McConnell and other advocates of telecom amnesty would have you believe, the phone companies were acting in good faith when they gave the government access to information about your phone activity.

That faith, apparently, was derived from the assumption that the administration -- including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez -- would follow the rule of law and uphold constitutional rights. But can anybody say that with a straight face?

Unfortunately, the Senate Intelligence Committee and our very own Sen. Olympia Snowe have now endorsed telecom amnesty, passing a new surveillance bill in late October that gives the telecoms retroactive immunity from suit.

That means the very people who took an oath to ''support and defend the Constitution'' are spending their time coming up with ways to protect corporations that have been instrumental in shredding the Fourth Amendment. And here's the kicker: If a new version of the FISA Act wins final passage, you will never know if your telephone company participated in the program.

The Senate bill directs the courts to dismiss lawsuits against telecom companies if the attorney general (and not a court) certifies that the company either did or did not assist the government in response to a request from the president.

The trick is, the attorney general will not have to say which it was and no one will ever be able to find out. And there is another major problem with most of the privacy legislation kicking around on Capitol Hill.

The bills now pending in Congress would specifically authorize so-called ''basket warrants.'' They do not require the government to say at whom and where the warrant is directed.

The government simply drops a ''basket'' on whatever communications it wants without any probable cause as required by the Constitution.

Apparently, most of our legislators have forgotten that we have a constitutional right not to have the government listen to our phone calls or read our e-mails unless the government can prove to a judge that there is good cause to do so.

The laws governing how and to what extent the government collects our private phone and e-mail records must require individual warrants.

Furthermore, no law should prevent Americans from holding the telecoms accountable for their role in any prior illegal surveillance. Protecting Americans from terrorism is vitally important, but we do not have to ignore the Constitution to protect our country.

As James Madison said: ''I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.''

We should call on our representatives to stand up for the Constitution by demanding a thorough investigation into the extent of domestic surveillance and refusing to let companies such as Verizon off the hook.

— Special to the TelegramThe laws governing how and to what extent the government collects our private phone and e-mail records must require individual warrants.

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