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Cenk Uygur

Cenk Uygur

Posted: February 18, 2008 01:56 PM

Is Cooperating with the Government Always a Good Thing?


President Bush had a press conference last week to talk about why he needs a bill that immunizes telecommunication companies for breaking the law by allowing the government to wiretap people without getting warrants. Of course they need immunity because they broke the law. Otherwise immunity would be pointless.

In the press conference, in response to a question from a reporter, President Bush said:

"People are wondering why companies need liability protection. Well, if you cooperate with the government and then get sued for billions of dollars because of the cooperation, you're less likely to cooperate."

In Bush's mind, that's the end of the question. Of course, cooperation with the government is a good thing, so we have to make sure we encourage that. But what if cooperation with the government was a bad thing?

What if the government asked AT&T to tap Senator Kerry's phones during the 2004 election? What if a horny government worker asked Best Buy to set up cameras inside Terry Hatcher's house so he could watch her undress?

I give these obvious examples to prove that of course cooperation with the government is not always the desired outcome. It depends on whether the request is legal or not.

I wish we had some laws that could tell us whether a government request on wiretapping is legal or not. Oh yeah, we do. It's called FISA. And it specifically forbade the telecom companies from cooperating with the government if the government did not have a warrant.

Some companies like Qwest recognized this as the clearly illegal request that it was and refused to cooperate. Other companies chose to break the law and work with the Bush administration outside the bounds of the law. If they had done this in wiretapping political opponent's phones, we would all be outraged now (I assume and hope we would be outraged). But the Bush administration claims they did it to stop terrorists, so people have a different reaction.

The reality is we have no idea who they wiretapped. If they were really sure all the people they tapped were terrorists, then getting warrants would have been the easiest thing in the world.

I just wish there was an easy way to determine who they did wiretap and if there was good intent behind the law-breaking. Oh yeah, there is. The FISA bill allows the courts to decide if the companies cooperated with the government with good intent or not. And that is precisely the mechanism that the Bush administration wants to circumvent now with telecom immunity.

Without going to court, we actually have no idea whether they did tap Senator Kerry's phones or not. They probably didn't, but are we supposed to take their word for it? Is that how our government runs? What's to prevent the next administration from doing precisely that if there is a precedent in place that the telecom companies must always cooperate with the government whether the request is legal or not?

We used to be a country of laws. Congress can still stand up and demand that we continue to be. Or they could buckle to the brazen law-breaking of the most unpopular president in history?

The House took a step in the right direction by standing up to the president at the end of last week, but now we go into closed negotiations where the Senate and House will debate whether they cave in again to the administration, as they seemingly always do, or stand strong against this power grab. The way I see it, it's probably 50-50 at this point (and I'm probably being incredibly optimistic).

Will Congress ever draw the line on this president? Or will they let him get away with trampling on our laws and our system of government again? We'll find out soon.

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