Immunity denies accountability

By Kevin Wilson

Congress is about to tell you it’s OK to break the law, as long as somebody in the government is paying you to do it.

The Senate on Tuesday voted in favor of giving telecommunications companies immunity for their roles in a National Security Administration eavesdropping program previously ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Senators voted 67-31 against an amendment from Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., giving citizens the right to file privacy suits against companies who took part in the program, which amassed information about the calls of Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime.

I applaud the efforts of Dodd and Feingold, and note that Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., was one of the 31 voting for the amendment, and express extreme disappointment in just about everybody else.

First off, the eavesdropping program strikes me as a giant government inefficiency. We’re talking about tens of millions of phone calls. Do tax dollars pay somebody to listen in on my cell phone when I order a pizza? I’ll save your time, I love stuffed crust and I’m not a terrorist.

I know the classic argument — “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” So I ask that question back: If telecom companies did nothing wrong, why the need for immunity?

And why was immunity a deal-breaker for President Bush? He told the nation repeatedly how important it was to get a bill through to protect American citizens from terrorists, but refused any bill that didn’t grant immunity.

Actions speak louder than words, and his (and Congress’) refusal to act on an immunity-free bill tells me protecting the phone companies comes first and protecting citizens second.
Maybe you’re saying telecom companies shouldn’t be punished for acting in the good faith of the nation. I reject this argument, especially considering many of the telecom companies simply stopped wiretaps when the Federal Bureau of Investigation was late with payments.
These companies were in it for the money, bottom line. If they wanted to make a decision in the best interest of their customers, they could have told the government no — a few companies did just that.

Dodd and Feingold took a look at the facts, and decided they needed to act because our Constitutional rights mean very little if we’re willing to ignore the Constitution to provide them. The government gets a lot of things wrong, and granting immunity denies citizens a chance to seek accountability.

Maybe these suits would have been frivolous, just as frivolous as combing through millions of phone calls. But citizens deserved the right to find out for themselves, not have Big Brother tell them no without a chance to dispute the matter.

Finally, let me apply local logic. Clovis City Commissioner Fred Van Soelen took some heat Monday night at a candidate forum because in 2007 he didn’t vote for a resolution taking a stance against an ethanol plant many citizens didn’t want. He felt government would be overstepping its duties in this circumstance, just as I feel Congress overstepped on the immunity issue, and thought matters were best left with the citizens and businesses involved.

The citizens took action, and got what they wanted when the company withdrew its application for a permit to operate in Clovis.

“The process worked,” Van Soelen said, “which is what I approved the whole time.”

Our nation deserved a similar process on government eavesdropping. I can think of about 67 people Van Soelen could replace in the Senate.

Kevin Wilson is a columnist for Freedom New Mexico. He can be contacted at 763-3431, ext. 313, or by e-mail: