The telecom companies helped the Bush administration in wiretapping people without a warrant. The wiretapping was illegal by any reasonable reading of the law (the law was written after the last burst of questionable government wiretapping during the 60s). There has been a strong push by some people to sue the telecom companies for their role in the wiretapping. It seems that the push is now over, in that both houses of Congress have voted to grant the companies retroactive legal immunity for their participation.
I’ve never completely understood the argument that it should be possible to sue the telecom companies. They didn’t undertake the wiretapping on their own. They did it on the request of the administration. On the one hand, they should have said “no, this request is wrong.” On the other hand, when the administration asks you to do something, you normally do it. We have checks and balances in the government itself. It’s a good idea for all citizens to seriously question government requests. But it should not be legally mandatory for them to do so.
If we are able to sue the telecom companies for their participation in this, what we are saying in effect is that they are responsible for judging the legality of a request from the administration. It seems to me that it is reasonable for the companies to say “the administration told us it was OK, and who are we to argue?” It does not seem right to hold them to a higher standard than that.
The real reason that people want to sue the telecom companies is because they can’t sue the people who really started the policy. The hope is that by putting pressure on the telecom companies now, we can avoid having this happen again in the future. That may be good strategy, but it doesn’t make it right. (As a practical matter the level of discussion on this issue is likely to deter the companies from similar actions for many years.)
I hope that the next administration will launch criminal prosecutions of the people who violated the wiretapping laws. Alternatively, Congress could start a real investigation. Those are the right ways to tackle the problem of illegal action by the government. Unfortunately these are not likely to happen. One need only look at the number of people involved in the illegal Iran/Contra arm sales who are currently back in government to see that there is only very weak punishment for illegal actions in Washington, D.C.