UNSUSPECTING Americans will be distressed to learn that the nation's major telecommunications companies have been freely surrendering their private phone and Internet records to the Bush Administration, in secrecy and without so much as a protest.
But indeed they have, relying on the government's assurance - unsupported by court order - that the records are necessary "to protect the public."
Blind obedience to government fiat is not what the Constitution requires, and the telecom giants know better. Yet they timidly turn over the information, then plead for blanket immunity from the federal privacy laws they tell their customers they uphold.
Such immunity is not warranted and should not be granted by Congress.
So far, Verizon Communications, AT&T, and Qwest Communications have admitted their complicity in letters to members of Congress investigating this abject surrender of privacy.
Verizon, the nation's second largest telecom, said it has given federal authorities the telephone records and Internet protocol addresses of 720 customers without court order since 2005. The company blandly insisted that if it questioned the government's so-called emergency requests for the data, it might have slowed down lawful efforts to protect the public.
Says who? The Bush Administration, the same folks who've made government mendacity the casual cornerstone of national policy. If they lie about such things as the reason for war, how do we know they're not really on some sort of political fishing expedition when they demand that phone companies give up their customers' records?
Verizon said it received FBI "administrative subpoenas," which don't have to be approved by any court, for information identifying not only a customer, but all the people that customer called, as well as the people those people called.
The company explained it didn't keep such information, but the request to "identify a calling circle" shows how broad the government's domestic surveillance is.
Certainly no one reasonably advocates that telecom carriers impede legitimate criminal or counter-terrorism investigations. For example, Verizon said it complied with court orders for customer data on 94,000 occasions from January, 2005 to September of this year. That's legal and justified, but turning over communications information without a judge signing off is a recipe for abuse of power.
The Justice Department's inspector general has previously reported that the FBI has questionably collected all sorts of private information - from phone to bank records - using national security letters or simply emergency requests.
Verizon and AT&T, facing a raft of lawsuits from privacy groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, say it's not their role to second-guess the legitimacy of emergency requests from federal authorities. But it is their responsibility to determine the government's legal right to seize data on the private phone calls or voice mails or calling habits of private citizens before cooperating.
If telecommunications companies are to retain any credibility with their customers, who rely on them for a whole range of personal communications, they must act as diligent gatekeepers to federal authorities, whose activities may not always be legitimate or in the national interest.