Why we sued the phone company

More than six years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration remains committed to using the specter of those attacks (and other possible new attacks) as justification for reckless, unlawful and unconstitutional behavior. This pattern can be seen most clearly in the current effort in Congress to grant the administration unchecked power to spy on Americans and to forgive in advance large corporate entities for illegal behavior.

Right now, Congress is engaged in a debate about changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Last August, Congress acceded to demands by the Bush administration to grant spy agencies broad, new powers to monitor the telephone calls, e-mails and Web site use of Americans without prior oversight from a court. The law, known as the Protect America Act, grants spy agencies unfettered access to the full spectrum of communications coming into or out of the U.S. without requiring the government to demonstrate that individuals being monitored are involved in any wrongdoing.

Congress placed a short time frame on the new law and, after a single extension, it was set to expire Feb. 15. Both the U.S. House and Senate offered to extend the measure for several weeks while working on more permanent legislation. That offer was rejected by the White House — because the Bush administration does not simply want the power to spy on Americans without a warrant (they already claim that authority), they want to grant retroactive immunity to the nation’s giant telecommunications companies, which collaborated with the government in spying on innocent Americans. Despite protests by the White House, the truth is that the government already had enough power to spy under pre-existing law.

President Bush‘s director of national intelligence recently acknowledged that the goal of this legislative effort was to provide amnesty for the telephone companies. If the telecoms receive the “get-out-of-jail-free” card that the administration demands, more than 40 lawsuits charging that the phone companies acted contrary to established federal law by not protecting consumers’ privacy will be thrown out of court. We are plaintiffs in one such lawsuit, and Congress should not deny us our day in court. The companies broke the law, and we believe they must be held accountable.

The Bush administration and its acolytes now claim that we must give giant telecoms amnesty for breaking the law, or else those telecoms will no longer cooperate with the government in spying efforts that help protect America. The truth is that telecoms do not need a special deal. These companies have immunity from lawsuits for turning over customer records to the government if they do so in conformity with existing law. But, in this instance, the telephone companies knowingly violated that law. If we give them a free pass this time, won’t the telephone companies feel free to violate the laws protecting our privacy in the future?

The Bush administration and its supporters in Congress complain that these lawsuits are simply about money and enriching trial lawyers — suggesting that the litigation should be stopped because of the potential damages that might be awarded in such lawsuits. This criticism ignores the fact that, according to the rules in the federal court, the only way that we could ensure that a federal judge could continue to explore previous violations if the companies simply changed their participation or the government changed or ended the program was to ask for minimal damages. We are not interested in recovering money for ourselves, nor is our counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. We, however, are committed to assuring that these giant companies are punished for violating the law and thus dissuaded from violating the law in the future.

More important, amnesty not only lets the companies off the hook without answering any questions, it assures that the American people will never learn about the breadth and extent of the lawless program. Some seem to suggest that we should not have our day in court because a select few members of Congress have been able to review documents about the spy program operated by the White House. The judgment of a few Washington insiders is not a substitute for the careful scrutiny of a federal court.

Congress is supposed to act to protect the rights of American citizens, not sacrifice those rights to large corporate entities. The House and Senate should resist the bullying tactics of the Bush White House and ensure that we have our day in court to vindicate our rights and reveal any illegality engaged in by the telecoms. We need to know about the Bush White House’s secret program.


Studs Terkel, author and oral historian; Quentin Young, physician and advocate for health-care reform; State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie; and James Montgomery, former Chicago corporation counsel, are plaintiffs in Terkel, et. al vs. AT&T.