Telecoms Deserve Scrutiny, Not Immunity

It's hard to know what's more disturbing-- the fact that Verizon Communications turns over private phone records to the feds without a court order, or the fact that company officials take the position that it's not their job to question the legality of "emergency" requests for such information.

Either way, it's an appalling breach of trust and just another reason why Verizon and AT&T don't deserve immunity from lawsuits brought by customers upset that their privacy was violated while telecom providers cooperated so gleefully with the feds. President Bush last week conditioned passage of a new surviellance measure upon such immunity-- the companies shouldn't be sued "because they are believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend our nation." But, so far, Democratic lawmakers are holding the line while they hold hearings.

The Dems ought to hold that line a lot longer, especially now that we've been told that the feds began their warrantless surveillance program before Sept. 11.

That revelation comes from court papers filed by former Qwest executive Joseph Nacchio, convicted last spring of insider trading. And it would be easy to blow off the allegations as the product of desperate positioning of defense attorneys. Many people have. But is it so far beyond the pale of probability to believe that this administration would have tried to improperly poach phone records even before the Twin Towers fell? Does anyone doubt that Vice President Dick Cheney would have approved such a gambit? And that then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales would have signed off on the matter? It's worth a continued look, isn't it?

Whether inaugurated before or after Sept. 11, the warrantless surveillance program always has been legally suspect. It has never complied with the provisions of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act. And lawyers for the telecom companies should have known that. Their complicity, then, is not something that should be rewarded by presidential fiat or legislation. It is something that ought to be scorned and prevented from here on out.

By Andrew Cohen |  October 16, 2007; 7:44 AM ET
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All you need to do is look at what Joseph Naccio alleged to understand why Verizon and AT&T coughed up those records -- Naccio alleged that the government cancelled hundreds of millions in contracts after Qwest refused to break the law. AT&T and Verizon had no such afflicion of morality. Let their chickens come home to roost.

Posted by: Nellie | October 16, 2007 10:12 AM

Sorry, but anyone with Radio Shack equipment can listen into your phone calls. Unless Congress steps up and puts some real teeth into the Privacy Laws what's to stop anyone from getting the same information on thier own?

Posted by: Justone | October 16, 2007 11:35 AM

Absolutely, Andrew. If the argument is that the telecoms acted in "defense of our nation," prior to our nation being attacked, then it stands to reason that they were following defenseless orders, and perhaps acting to negotiate a lucrative contract with the WH. It would be nice if the guilty were not pardoned, much as it would have been nice if Qwest's honesty had not been rewarded with punishment. No good deed...

Posted by: gromeri | October 16, 2007 11:55 AM

While the surveillance itself is a crime, keep in mind that it is only a tool to commit much bigger crimes.

Qwest CEO Not Alone in Alleging NSA Started Domestic Phone Record Program 7 Months Before 9/11:

Posted by: Singing Senator | October 16, 2007 12:29 PM

I have mixed emotions on this one. I don't know whether AT&T or Verizon deserve immunity (or indemnification) or not. But, I don't have any information that would help me form an opinion. I hope that congress doesn't cave on this issue before we find out exactly what it is we are granting immunity for.

Posted by: Chris R | October 16, 2007 12:32 PM

Here's a generous offer... every telecom company will have full immunity for crimes they did not commit. That's more consideration than the innocent Candian and British citizens who were the victims of "extrordinary rendition" due to mistaken identity received. A dubious lead from data mining of telecom records, a friend with an Arab name who you've called in Britain a few times and YOU might be the next person sent to Gitmo to be "not quite" tortured!

Posted by: BD | October 16, 2007 12:55 PM

... I mean what the he11, it's only SIMULATED drowning!

Posted by: BD | October 16, 2007 12:56 PM

Look, I think it comes down to one very simple fact - the president is INSISTING that any new law include retroactive immunity for the telecoms companies.

If you ask the question WHY, you can really draw only one conclusion: because they need immunity.

Why do they need immunity?

Because they broke the law. There's no other reason for the president to INSIST on such immunity.

The president and the telcoms say the companies shouldn't be sued "because they are believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend our nation."

How can you prove defense of the nation when you are breaking the law and violating people's fourth amendment rights? You can't because this administration and the bonehead lawyers for the telecoms will claim "state secrets". It's nonsense and Congress and the American people shouldn't buy it.

If the president won't sign a new law that doesn't include immunity, then we simply revert back to the amended version of FISA. It worked before, and there's absolutely no proof it wasn't working when Congress rolled over to pass the sunsetting update two months ago. The Democrats had better not roll over on this one - if they do, I'm sending Harry Reid my card, shredded.

Posted by: corbett | October 16, 2007 12:56 PM

This is outrageous. I grew up being taught that stuff like this happens only in police states. But we have officials and political appointees that operate above the law. I hear people saying "Well, if they catch a Terrorist this way, that's good. Besides, what do I have to hide?"

What if someone inside the government decides to blackmail you? What if certain elected officials (or organizations) see that they can break the law, gather information, and then use this as a new power to crack down on people or groups they don't approve of?

Congress has to take a stand, here and now, demand accountability from these pliant stooge telecoms.

Posted by: whoo_whoo | October 16, 2007 12:59 PM

What I want to know is how I can join in on the lawsuit against Verizon for violatiing my privacy?! It's amazing how this country has gone to hell so quickly. How is it that Americans are so easily willing to give up their civil rights and their privacy and for what? If all it took were the attacks on Sept. 11 to turn this country from the beacon of freedom and democracy that it once was to what it has become today, then America and the values and constitution it once proudly bragged about and held up high were weak to begin with!

Posted by: Amer A | October 16, 2007 12:59 PM

Why should it be the job of telecoms to question the FBI, NSA and other government agencies when information is requested for the sake of national security? If these Telecoms refused to grant access to records, the Post would be one of the first newspapers to report that these companies are putting the country at risk. Telcoms are generally excellent corporate citizens who respect and protect the confidentiality of their customers and their cooperation with Federal Law Enforcement should not be subject lawsuits, etc.. I suspect that this has gone on for a lot longer than you have reported, under prior adminstrations. This is just another transparent Post article that bashes the current administration and those who cooperate with it.

Posted by: Kevin | October 16, 2007 12:59 PM

The Singing Senator is correct that the initial surveilance is only the first layer of concern. What was done with the information collected?

All screening programs that are looking for the proverbial "needle in a haystack" produce many, many more false positives than true positives. What has happened to all those callers who must have been falsely labelled as potential terrorists, kidnappers and predators?

Posted by: jb | October 16, 2007 01:02 PM

The article is about an administration that flouts the law and expects big business to go along with it. Business can be a good corporate citizen under all kinds of regimes -- for instance, it got along famously with the Nazis. I am offended by the type that is being created now, a paranoid fearful police state. What side are you on?

Posted by: comet_22 | October 16, 2007 01:09 PM

Amer A... It's fear and greed... there's no way Bush would have been reelcted if he didn't play the fear card. Fear of a terrorist attack, fear of gay marriage, and greedy corporations donating millions to elect puppet politicians. laura bush, in her Daily Show interview, tried to say that we have not had a terrorist attack since 9/11 because of the job bush has done protecting us while listing the numerous embassy bombings and the USS Cole bombing as the fault of Clinton. She conveniently forgot the daily bombings of Americans in Iraq, our embassy in Kenya in 2005, and the Spanish train and the London Underground bombings. When Stewart called her on it she said "Oh! I meant American interests." hoe apropos... I guess they care even less about our allies than they do about those of us who do not agree with them.

I'd rather be free than safe...
Fear is the mother's milk of facists!

Posted by: BD | October 16, 2007 01:17 PM

With Verizon FIOS, your personal data gets to the National Security Agency at the speed of light!

Posted by: tjrh | October 16, 2007 01:24 PM

Kevin said "Telcoms are generally excellent corporate citizens" I have to laugh at that one! Hey Kevin how come your IP address is registered to the United States Telecom Association? Just kidding about the IP address but maybe you're right... telecoms are model corporate citizens (when it suits them to be) right up there with big tobacco and big oil!

Posted by: BD | October 16, 2007 01:25 PM

In what way does the U.S. not perfectly fit the definition of a fascist police state?

Posted by: ed | October 16, 2007 01:32 PM

Here's what I don't get. (1) Why aren't our newspapers calling the line on Bushco's contempt for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, our Congress, and our courts? I call them cowards and enablers, and I demand impeachment. Hound your rep until he/she agrees. This is serious stuff -- no habeas, illegal wiretapping, building 40,000-bed detention facilities on our land, torturing, crony capitalism, etc. This is our children's land and freedom we're sacrificing here.

(2) Why doesn't everyone cancel their Verizon and AT&T contracts in protest? It's not like you can't go with another server, use email, write letters, get a land line.

Posted by: Pico | October 16, 2007 01:35 PM

I canceled my AT&T account when I heard the news -- wrote them a letter and I called them -- the corporate line was they could neither confirm nor deny anything but they assured me they were not acting illegally. What BS!

Posted by: comet_22 | October 16, 2007 02:03 PM

"In what way does the U.S. not perfectly fit the definition of a fascist police state?"

They're not knocking on our doors at 2:00 in the morning.

But then, with what they have avaivable through such willing accomplices as the telecom providers, do they need to?

Posted by: DC | October 16, 2007 03:26 PM

They're not knocking on our doors at 2:00 in the morning? How would anyone know?

Haven't you heard of the thousands who've been detained without habeas corpus and without access to an attorney, and without the opportunity to confront their accuser(s) or even know the accusations, and without access to visitors, and without access to a jury trial?

We're told this has happened mostly at Gitmo, but we don't know that for a fact, do we?

We do know that most of the actions authorized under the Patriot Acts preclude notification to the accused or detained, including clandestine searches and entry into homes without court oversight, and that banks and telecoms are forbidden to disclose searches, and that recipients of letters from Homeland Security are forbidden to disclose that fact.

We also know that the government has $400+ million to build, and is building, detention centers in the USA, and that they are being used now for persons alleged to be "illegal aliens," and are planned to be used for "potential terrorists and for other [unspecified] purposes.

We also do know that there are cases where US citizens have actually been "disappeared" in recent immigrant roundups. Their families do not know where they are. We know that some have died in custody.

We know that the Decider alone has given himself the power to say who is a "potential terrorist," and that anti-war protesters, among others, have been targeted as "potential terrorists" and put on "watch" lists.

We know that there's been a 30-year, relentless campaign of demonization of liberals and gays/lesbians and Hispanics especially, and that thanks to people like Rush and Coulter, probably 30% of the country is mentally prepped for whatever the Decider decides he'd like to do to us. All he has to do is accuse. That's it. We're detained indefinitely as long as he wants without recourse.

Why, our Pres even has his own Brownshirts.

So what part of fascism are we missing, again?

Who will stand up for our kids and our country? If we each wait for the 2:00 knock on our personal doors, won't that be a little late? Again, where are our newspaper editors? Our cable and TV spokepeople? Our clergy? Our members of Congress? Our judges? Who here has spoken to his or her community, state, and national leaders with profound outrage about this?

Posted by: Pico | October 16, 2007 04:36 PM

Correcting an earlier post... I said "Laura Bush, in her Daily Show interview..." when it was Lynn Cheney... correct quote, wrong person. But does it matter, one's married to stupid the other is married to evil. Hope I don't get shot in the face for saying that.

Posted by: BD | October 16, 2007 04:43 PM

Bad week for me to run out of Prozac.

If I remember correctly it was AT&T who ran the DO NOT CALL list for the FTC. I guess it was the only way for the NSA to match email addresses with phones.

At the time I saw the problem with the DO NOT CALL list and made an email account just for that (ironically, it was my Verizon web account that gave me the mail accounts). I suspect that come DNC renewal time next year there will be a huge rush for new gmail or whatever accounts.

Posted by: GD | October 16, 2007 05:17 PM

When did people become so PARANOID!!! You do realize you are losing your minds over simple phone records right?
I mean all the government found out is that 212 555-1212 called 415 555-6762.. WOW!!! how terrible huh??? Look if you are so concerned about your personal info being let out then you're in trouble because trust me a lot more personal information is available to the government
or ANYONE else by googlieing your name. Or if you are worried about your privacy being violated.. well it's being violated a lot more everytime
you try to board a plane. And as far as the government learning anything important about you.. again they learn a lot more when you fill out your tax returns or when you fill out a census form... There is information about everyone available to almost anyone... and you people are losing sleep because the government got a list of telephone numbers??? Hey after 9/11 the government and the PUBLIC were RIGHTFULLY worried about another terrorist attack so Verizon IN GOOD FAITH provided some information, we are talking about a few hundred numbers compared to the hundreds of millions of calls made everyday, thinking it could help stop more Americans from being killed...
And now they are the bad guys??? This should be looked into and corrections made on how companies should handle requests in the future..
but there was NO MALICE here.. and NOBODY can show they were damaged by what happened.. this is just another attempt by people to sue
to make a fast buck.. And as far as this government being Fascist.. well let's see after 9/11 Bush asked for phone records to try to prevent another attack... after Pearl Harbor FDR threw Japanese Americans in concentration camps to prevent an another attack.. Oh yeah and Bush is the Fascist...

Posted by: RSS | October 16, 2007 06:51 PM


Posted by: mtrav | October 16, 2007 07:27 PM

Kevin says:

"Why should it be the job of telecoms to question the FBI, NSA and other government agencies when information is requested for the sake of national security?"

Good question. It generally isn't the job of the person providing records to ask what they're for, or if there's a good reason. That's the job of judges, who issue warrants (or subpoenas). That process proves it's for national security, not surveillance of Hillary Clinton or my calls to my girlfriend.

And, as a proactive response to the "we only listen in on terrorists" line parroted so often, we have NO IDEA who was listened in on. If an impartial judge said "I can't tell you, but good cause was shown", that would satisfy me. I'm not going to accept that from W or Gonzales (who probably can't remember, anyway).

That's why it's so outrageous that this went on. Because the W admin HAS a way to legally get these that provides some measure of due process and protection of the public against unjustified searches. (limited, given the FISA court, but that's another argument.)

Let me put it another way. Somebody's committed a crime. What do you do? Call the police? No, W says. You have to let them go. (and he wouldn't press so hard for amnesty if a crime hadn't been committed)

But they committed a crime! we respond.

"It's for a good cause--National security!"

A reasonable person might ask what crime was committed, against who, how many times, for what benefit... one might justify listening in on Osama, but not on Hillary. One might justify listening in in an emergency, but were these really emergencies when warrants couldn't be gotten?
According to W, we shouldn't ask that.

Explain, please, why we shouldn't? Or, just for the record, please name ONE terrorist captured or plot foiled that justifies this. One will do.

Posted by: Sam | October 16, 2007 09:51 PM

"First they came for the hackers.
But I never did anything illegal with my computer, so I didn't speak up.

Then they came for the pornographers.
But I thought there was too much smut on the Internet anyway, so I didn't speak up.

Then they came for the anonymous remailers.
But a lot of nasty stuff gets sent from, so I didn't speak up.

Then they came for the encryption users.
But I could never figure out how to work PGP, so I didn't speak up.

Finally they came for me.
And by that time there was no one left to speak up."

(Alara Rogers)

The thought police are coming,
they're coming to take me away.
It seems that Congress didn't like
the words I had to say.

They read my mail and scanned my files
and watched where I had been.
They crawled the web and peered within,
they said my speech was sin.

It all began with a simple request:
"Do you like sex as much as I?"
Big Brother smiled his knowing smile
and he began to spy.

They knew my every thought.
They knew my every desire.
It seems my crime from their point of view
was doing it over the wire.

You cannot fight a monster
that is more powerful than you.
So even if you want to
don't ask someone to screw.

The thought police are coming,
they're coming to take me away.
It seems that you were offended
by the words that I had said.

The thought police are coming,
they're coming to take me away.
The thought police are coming,
they're going to drag me away.

"First they came for the second amendment.
But I said nothing because I wasn't a gun runner.

Then they came for the fourth amendment.
But I didn't object because I wasn't a drug dealer.

Then they came for the sixth amendment.
But I kept quiet because I wasn't guilty.

Then they came for the eighth amendment,
But I was silent because I never thought I'd be sent to jail.

Finally they came for the first amendment.
And by then it was too late to say anything at all."

(Adapted from a Nancy Liebowitz button)

"First they came for the Jews.
But I didn't speak up because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists.
But I didn't speak up because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists.
But I didn't speak up because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics.
But I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me.
And by that time no one was left to speak up."

(Pastor Martin Niemoller)

Posted by: Dave | October 16, 2007 10:35 PM

In Iran, Putin Warns Against Military Action:

Posted by: sali | October 17, 2007 09:30 AM

NO good corporate citizen should be forced by the FBI or any one else in this country to give up private information unless done by a Judge in the form of a sopeona period. Anything less in my opinion constitutes "unreasonable search and seizure." This is still the United States of America isn't it?.........Or is it.

Posted by: geminga | October 17, 2007 02:28 PM

One addition to your good post, geminga-

No corporate citizen should be ALLOWED to give up private information without a subpoena or a warrant.

Remember, it's not their information, it's OURS.

Posted by: Sam | October 17, 2007 02:45 PM

Andrew, how can Congress pass a bill granting immunity to the telecoms? Article I, section 9 states: "No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed." It seems to me that making something that was illegal at the time legal after the telecoms violated the law is specifically forbidden in the Constitution, not that America is governed by the Constitution any longer. It appears to me that the government is doing whatever it bloody well pleases and wiping their bums with that precious document. Thoughts?

Posted by: ExPat2 | October 19, 2007 03:34 AM

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