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Phone spying must not trample rights

British author George Orwell’s picture of a dystopian future in the novel “1984” may have been off by 24 years but he certainly seemed to have an insight into potential pitfalls future governments would face.

How else could the man know that in 2007, about 60 years after he wrote his acclaimed novel, that the balance between protection and civil rights would be such a fine line?

Orwell painted a picture of a totalitarian government that thrives on surveillance and manipulation of the facts. Although we don’t think George W. Bush has fully earned the comparison to Big Brother, the White House’s insistence on unchecked telephone surveillance on United States residents certainly draws some dangerous similarities.

Despite a Feb. 1 deadline to extend the law outlining the rules U.S. intelligence agencies must follow when electronic eavesdropping, the Senate voted against giving the court that oversees these actions more powers.

We urge lawmakers to address this issue now, laying down clear and concise guidelines as to when agencies must seek a court order for wiretapping.

Currently, grey areas in the law make limitation unclear and do not seem to be administered evenly.

The biggest hurdle to overcome will likely be the White House’s insistence for a retroactive shield law that would protect telecommunications companies that assisted the government with its warrantless wire tapping after Sept. 11.

Although we adamantly oppose warrantless wiretapping because they trample our nation’s civil liberties, we support this protection because these companies had little to no choice.

The administration essentially strong-armed and intimidated them into helping and they should not be financially crippled because of it. The more than 40 civil suits should seek damages from the government, not the telecommunications companies that were forced to cooperate.

But the larger issue remains: Should the government be able to side step the law to get information? The answer is no.

All future administrations should be forced to seek court orders for surveillance, something that won’t be difficult to obtain from American judges as long as evidence exists.

Anything else is a slippery slope that Orwell warned us about.