Polling the Fear Instead of the Fact

By January 23, 2008Briefly Legal, Communications

The ACLU-paid-for opinion survey on foreign intelligence surveillance (see post below) addressed the issue of whether telecommunications companies should be granted legal immunity for having acceded to federal government’s formal and — we would argue — legal request to assist in monitoring foreign communications in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that murdered 3,000 people here in the United States.

Here’s the question as posed by the pollsters for the Mellman Group.

U.S. phone companies recently gave the private records of millions of their customers to the government because the government said it needed the private records to investigate terrorism. Some people say the telephone companies’ release of customers’ private records is against the law. Congress is considering a bill that gives phone companies immunity, preventing any legal action against them for releasing those private records to the government. Do you think Congress should give the phone companies immunity from legal action against the companies or should citizens who believe their rights have been violated be free to take legal action against those phone companies and let the courts decide the outcome?

Jeez, couldn’t you have worked in the bit about the clubbing of baby seals?

Public opinion surveys designed to elicit certain responses are common practices by Washington, D.C., activist groups and trade associations, so we’ll spare you the mock outrage. Sufficient to say, the response to this question reveals absolutely nothing of value about public sentiment on an involved legal issue. Bias aside, it’s just one very long question…Who’s going to remember the point when asked it on the phone?

We believe the case is clear: Telecommunications companies should not become the target of avaricious trial lawyers because the companies assisted in the overseas monitoring of suspected terrorists, plotting to kill us. As Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) of the Senate Intelligence Committee argues,

[Without] long-term legislation telecommunications providers who may have assisted the government in tracking terrorists would not be protected from ongoing frivolous lawsuits. Without this protection our intelligence sources and methods could be compromised, resulting in the loss of intelligence that could be vital to our intelligence operators and our troops on the battlefield.

Businesses should not be punished for being good citizens in a time of war.

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