“Dragging phone companies through protracted litigation [over complying with NSA requests for surveillance help] would not only be unfair, but it would deter other companies and private citizens from responding in terrorist emergencies whenever there may be uncertainty or legal risk. … Without [the companies’ voluntary cooperation], our intelligence efforts will be gravely damaged. Whether the government has acted properly is a different question from whether a private person has acted properly in responding to the government’s call for help. … For hundreds of years our legal system has operated under the premise that, in a public emergency, we want private citizens to respond to the government’s call for help unless the citizen knows for sure that the government is acting illegally. If Congress does not act now, it would be basically saying that private citizens should only help when they are absolutely certain that all the government’s actions are legal.” (Benjamin Civiletti, Dick Thornburgh and William Webster, WSJ/OpinionJournal.com, Oct. 31). More here (fifth item) and here.
P.S. Commenters argue in response that the telecoms are sophisticated and had plenty of time to consult counsel, and point out that Qwest did in fact turn the government down. More: Bader, CEI (with arguments from Sen. Rockefeller).