Verizon's willingness to turn over customer telephone records when the government asks even though investigators often make such requests without a court order is a troubling practice.
The company may be motivated by a desire to help or to avoid government confrontation. But Verizon's approach, disclosed in a letter to Congress this week, is the wrong way to go about this.
The burden of proof rests with the federal government to prove its need for the records. Except in rare instances, investigators must take their records requests to a judge who then can determine whether to issue a warrant. The Constitution intends just that, in language that fairly balances privacy fears and law enforcement.
Yet the Bush administration insists on continuing to push the post-9/11 civil liberties vs. security debate in the wrong direction. Because telecom companies that have complied with its requests now face huge lawsuits from citizens-rights groups, the administration wants a law to grant immunity to businesses sued for disclosing information without court authorization.
Congress is right to look at the immunity proposal with a skeptical eye, especially since the administration has been reluctant to explain details of its controversial surveillance programs to lawmakers. The law would further erode the privacy firewall and remove another layer of checks and balances.
The phone companies, meanwhile, have refused to tell relevant congressional committees whether they participated in the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program. Their silence is based on concerns that they might illegally divulge classified information if they talk to Congress in too much detail.
Yet Congress and the courts have legitimate oversight roles in issues of privacy and national security. Due process is necessary to promote transparency and accountability in a democracy. These are foundational principles, even in the more dangerous post-9/11 world.
—The Dallas Morning New