Outside editorial: Telecoms deserve immunity from surveillance lawsuits

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2008

The following editorialappeared in the Orlando Sentinel:

Senate and House leaders have been spinning their wheels for weeks on a new law to set limits on President George W. Bush terrorist surveillance program. It's time they got moving.

Both chambers have passed bills that would better guard against abuses in the program by increasing oversight from Congress and a special federal intelligence court. But the Senate bill would grant immunity from lawsuits for telecommunications companies that cooperated with government requests for information after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; the House bill would not.

With the two sides stuck on that issue, a temporary law governing the program expired last month. That hasn't shut down the program, but has created uncertainty that could limit its effectiveness.

Immunity for the telecoms makes sense. The Bush administration assured them their help was both legal and essential, yet they now face dozens of class-action lawsuits and billions of dollars in damage claims for violating the privacy of their customers.

Immunity opponents have argued that the suits could shed light on the surveillance program's dubious legality before it was brought under court supervision. But that inquiry is better directed at the administration responsible for the program, not the companies that heeded its requests.

To break the deadlock on a surveillance law that would better protect privacy in the future, Senate and House leaders need to agree on holding the government responsible for privacy violations in the past.

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