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A breach of trust

Congress should act on reports that phone companies are providing the government with phone records of millions of Americans.

A Times Editorial
Published May 12, 2006

In June 2005, before there were revelations that he had ordered the National Security Agency to conduct a warrantless domestic wiretapping program after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush assured Americans that "law enforcement officers need a federal judge's permission to wiretap a foreign terrorist's phone, a federal judge's permission to track his calls, or a federal judge's permission to search his property."

Then, after the New York Times broke the story, the president changed his claims and instead assured us that warrantless eavesdropping on phone calls occurred only when one party was a member of al-Qaida or another terrorist group and one end of the communication was outside the United States.

Now it appears that is not the full story, either. A bombshell dropped by USA Today on Thursday revealed that three of the nation's biggest telephone companies have been secretly handing over their customers' phone records to the NSA without a warrant. According to one source, the NSA was intent on building "the largest database ever assembled in the world'' for the purpose of creating "a database of every call ever made" within the nation's borders.

The point of our constitutional protections against unreasonable searches is to prevent law enforcement from going on a fishing expedition by looking for suspects among the private records of innocent Americans. This NSA program, where the records of every telephone call made by every customer of AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon are turned over to the government, is precisely the kind of baseless intrusion that the founders intended to prevent.

Maybe now Congress will get serious about investigating the extent of the Bush administration's disregard for Americans' privacy. For a while it seemed that only Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has been vocally demanding a full accounting of the NSA domestic wiretapping program, and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who called for censuring Bush over the program, have been seriously concerned.

Most Democrats ran for cover after polls indicated that the public was leaning toward the president's side on the issue, showing they are willing to put politics over our nation's most basic principles. When Specter suggested that funding might be withheld if the administration continued stonewalling Congress on the details of the wiretapping program, his colleagues left him to flap in the breeze.

The disclosure that the NSA has been looking for suspicious patterns in the telephone calls of millions of innocent Americans is chilling, even if the snooping does not include listening in on the content of the calls. Democratic members of Congress have responded with outrage and some Republicans are sounding uneasy.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said incredulously, "Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved in al-Qaida?" Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has called for an investigation, and Specter already has announced his intention to bring the phone company executives before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer for their breach of customer privacy.

This issue should also be front and center at the confirmation hearings of former NSA director Michael Hayden, the president's nominee to head the CIA. Gen. Hayden was at the helm of the NSA when the warrantless domestic wiretapping and telephone records programs were instigated.

If the federal government has been trolling through all of our phone records, then it has breached a fundamental trust. It's time for Congress to start aggressively asserting its oversight role.

[Last modified May 12, 2006, 09:27:38]

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