It suddenly turns out that U.S. intelligence agencies have been gathering much more information about American citizens than anyone thought or is appropriate and the nation’s largest communications companies have been part and parcel of these activities. Is anyone really surprised?

It doesn’t take a legal scholar to understand the constitutional ramifications of unsupervised data mining even in a world consumed by terrorist panic. While no one wants a repeat of Sept. 11, 2001, there are risks a republic must take to preserve the individual rights of its citizens, including the possibility that some scrap of intelligence might be missed because of the doctrine of probable cause.

Now the Senate — Republicans and Democrats — have reached a compromise with the White House to let the companies off the hook for their complicity in this most controversial aspect of the war on terror by making them immune from pending and future suits for invasion of privacy. They also have taken supervision of the spying program out of the hands of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court. Using the constitutional machinery of proving the legality and need for this information might slow down the process after all and let someone slip through the net. At least that is always the argument in these cases and it was one telecom executives used repeatedly in justifying their cooperation.

Well, balderdash and far more severe expletives. Privacy is one of our most valuable possessions and it is extremely hard to maintain in this age of the Internet. Identity theft and the selling of personal information for commercial reasons are rampant despite a large number of safeguards adopted by Congress. Sadly, these measures seem to make it tough to find out simple information but easy to delve into the important stuff.

The other day, for instance, I called a major state university to see if I could locate a cousin I hadn’t seen in 50 years. Not only wouldn’t they say whether he graduated, which I knew he had, they refused without a court order to give me a contact number for him. The Privacy Act, I was told rather curtly. OK, but what about all those solicitations that have been sent to him not only by the university but also by those to whom the school has sold his and thousands of other names?

But it is one thing to have that sort of unwarranted intrusion and quite another for the government of the United States through the FBI or any other intelligence agency without court approval to collect the records of not only whom one called but whom that person called as a consequence. This multi-generational approach to spying reveals just how deeply the government is prepared to dig into the affairs of Americans without oversight. Wholesale abuse is not just a possibility it is a fact that already has been disclosed time and again since President Bush and his minions lost their perspective about what this country promises its citizens. Now they have intimidated the wishy-washy Congress.

The severity of this crime has increased dramatically with the capitulation, some apparently under duress, of the companies we expect to obey the laws and protect our personal interests. The former chief executive office of Qwest has said that he refused a government request for records because he found it illegal. As a consequence, he said, Qwest lost a federal contract.

It is adding insult to injury for the Congress to agree to immunize those companies involved in this activity from possible suit. In fact, it seems to me that every American who can prove he was the victim of an unwarranted intrusion — and there have been lots — should be beating a path to civil court. Obviously, federal prosecutions and fines probably would be out of the question seeing that it was the government who violated the rights in the first place.

The clear and present danger from terrorists demands certain actions that we would avoid during normal times. But there also is a clear and present danger to our welfare from those who ignore the Constitution in the name of national security. Granting them permission to avoid third party supervision because of expediency accomplishes a major terrorist goal — the destruction of our way of life. The government’s abuses during the 1970s and ’80s brought about creation of the FISA court for good reason. Does anyone believe that September 11, 2001 makes acceptable the further abuses that are certain to occur from this?

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