In a House Judiciary hearing today, Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Ken Wainstein testified in support of the Administration's request to give the telecom companies a 'get out of jail free' card for their participation in warrantless wiretapping. Wainstein breathlessly warned that the telecoms might otherwise face "crushing liability." But the statutory penalties for warrantless wiretapping are relatively small per person -- even if AT&T was ordered to pay the maximum penalty, a few hundred illegal wiretaps would amount to less than a rounding error in the phone companies' quarterly statements (AT&T reported revenues of $29.4 billion for the quarter ending June 30). If the NSA was truly limiting its spying to suspected terrorists, the potential liability would be like an annoying gnat on an elephant. So why are the companies so worried? Perhaps the telecoms are actually concerned because they helped the feds intercept the communications of millions of ordinary Americans.
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