The Senate has reportedly reached a deal giving telecommunication companies legal immunity for their possible unlawful conduct in domestic surveillance. This occurred after they were given access to some of the requests. It is another astonishing act of enabling this administration’s circumvention of the law and stripping citizens of the last residue of protections.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has led the effort to give the companies immunity after reportedly concluding that they ”acted in good faith” in cooperating with what they believed was a legal and presidentially authorized program and that they should not be punished through civil litigation for their roles, the official said. It is an absolutely amazing statement. Companies are not supposed to take the government’s word or assurance that a program is lawful. They are supposed to protect the interests, privacy, and contractual obligations of their customers. Since when can a company violate the rights of their customers and just claim that they took the word of some individual or agency? This is about powerful companies with heavy political contributions getting protection that will help them defeat average citizens. The Senate is about to effectively kill dozens of lawsuits on behalf of average citizens and public interest groups. It will leave citizens with no one to protect their privacy. The government has an insatiable desire for information and has already committed crimes to get that information. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees have failed to exercise oversight for years and are viewed as little more than a joke by civil liberties groups. The courts have been cut out of the process except for a largely meaningless role of a secret court (that itself is questionable on a constitutional level). That left the companies themselves as the protectors of the privacy of their customers. Now, Congress will eliminate that final protection for citizens and actually retroactively destroy the ability of citizens to demand relief.
It is a course of events that would have Framers like George Mason spinning in their graves. They assumed that Congress would exercise a modicum of concern and power to protect citizens or at least resist power grabs from the Executive Branch. In the last six years, President Bush ordered various forms of domestic surveillance that is viewed as illegal and criminal by many experts. In response, the Democrats refused to commence impeachment investigations. They then extended the unlawful program, allowing the White House to now claim legal authority. On the issue of National Security letters, the Administration gathered information from the telecommunication companies without warrant despite objections that such demands were unlawful. The companies did not inform their customers and all but one gave into the demands without a substantive fight. For a system based on checks and balances, it is nothing short of a complete system failure.
What is remarkable is that no democrats are asking why these companies should have immunity from their own customers rather than allow the courts to handle the question. If the Senators agree with these lobbyists that their companies “acted in good faith,” then allow the argument to go to a jury. Instead, the White House and these companies will get additional protections and privacy rights will again be left in the dust on Capitol Hill.