House rejects measure to rein in broad NSA spying powers

Despite bi-partisan effort against, lawmakers vote 217 to 205 to maintain surveillance programs

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Libertarian Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan opposes abortion rights, has voted multiple times to repeal and defund Obamacare, and supports a balanced budget amendment.

His colleague from Michigan, liberal Democrat Rep. John Conyers, doesn’t agree with him on any of those things, but the two were of like mind Wednesday afternoon, standing together to say the U.S. government had overstepped its bounds in spying on American citizens.   

But not enough of their colleagues agreed with them. The so-called “Amash amendment,” which would have limited the National Security Agency’s ability to peek into the phone records of millions of Americans and was attached to a defense appropriations bill, failed to clear the House of Representatives by a vote of 205-to-217 early Wednesday evening.

Still, it was the first time that members of Congress were given the opportunity to express their unease about the National Security Agency’s wide-reaching domestic surveillance programs through their votes. The programs were initially revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last month.

Along with Amash and Conyers, the measure was co-sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, Democrat from Colorado, Rep. Thomas Massie, Republican of Kentucky, and Mick Mulvaney, Republican of South Carolina.   

Despite the failure of the amendment, bipartisan support for the provision is the strongest sign yet that lawmakers are willing to pick a fight with the intelligence community.

 “The simple question the amendment attempts to resolve is,’Do we oppose the suspicion-less collection of millions of Americans' phone records?’” Amash said during a spirited, rapid-fire debate on the amendment on the House floor. “Opponents of this amendment will use the same tactic that every government throughout history has used to justify its violation of rights: fear.”

The amendment would have defunded NSA programs that allow “for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act” and barred “the NSA and other agencies from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation under Section 215.”

The debate over NSA’s activities is the rare issue that cuts across party lines in typically gridlocked Washington. The amendment united privacy advocates in support and security hawks in opposition on both sides of the aisle. In a marker of just how unusual the moment was, Rep. Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and bomb-throwing conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, spoke in favor of Obama administration policies.

"Passing this amendment takes us back to September 10,” Rogers said. Ultimately, that argument prevailed.

The final passage of the measure into law was always unlikely—it would have had to clear the Senate and then withstand President Obama’s probable veto.

There are also other opportunities for lawmakers to register any protests against the programs—Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., is working on his own defense spending bill  as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee, and has long opposed the NSA’s capabilities. In addition, Section 215 of the Patriot Act that allows for the surveillance activities has to be reauthorized in 2015.

"I was asked to support extension of Section 215 of the Patriot Act two years ago, I did so, and I had no idea at that time that that section of the Patriot Act would be used to collect telephone data on every single American," Mulvaney told Al Jazeera America before the vote. "This amendment puts Section 215 back to where it was supposed to be, which is giving the intelligence community the power to do extensive work on those who are under investigation."

Polis said in an interview that the amendment presented perfectly reasonable restrictions on NSA’s currently unfettered powers.

“Why are we gathering intelligence about people who are not even subject to investigation?” Polis said. “This has embarrassed our nation and escalated tensions with our allies.”

He added that the crux of the problem went back to the broad powers conferred to the executive branch by the Patriot Act, key provisions of which were renewed in 2011 and signed into law by President Obama.

“I think any executive will use the authority given them to by Congress but unfortunately the Patriot Act allowed for blanket authority,” Polis said.

President Obama for the most part has been able to keep Democrats in line on issues of national security, even as he has adopted or gone further than the hardline anti-terrorism tactics used by his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

Online activist groups mounted a last-minute effort to influence the debate. Two groups, Demand Progress and Fight For The Future, launched defundthensa.com, urging members of the public to reach out to their lawmakers and support the amendment.

The White House is closely watching and taking seriously any congressional rebellion. When news first broke that the amendment would be considered on the House floor Wednesday, the Obama administration released a terse statement.

“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools,” the statement read. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.”

NSA chief Keith Alexander also met behind closed doors with Democratic and Republican lawmakers Tuesday, urging them to reject the amendment and saying NSA programs were vital for national security.

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