Narrow defeat for Amash amendment to restrict NSA surveillance
First major challenge to NSA's bulk collection of phone records defeated by
only 217 votes to 205 in House of Representatives
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 24 July 2013 19.17 EDT
Justin Amash, said he introduced the amendment to 'defend the fourth
amendment . to defend the privacy of each and every American'. Photo: J
The first major legislative challenge to the National Security Agency's bulk
collection of phone records from millions of Americans was defeated by only
a narrow margin on Wednesday, sending a clear signal to the Obama
administration that congressional anger about the extent of domestic
surveillance is growing.
Despite a concerted lobbying effort by the White House and senior
intelligence figures, the attempt to rein in the NSA failed by only 12
votes. The final vote was 205 in favor and 217 against, exposing deep
restiveness in Congress over the wisdom and constitutionality of the bulk
surveillance on Americans less than two months after the Guardian exposed it
thanks to leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden. A shift of seven votes
would have changed the outcome.
Civil libertarians disappointed by the vote promised not to relent in
opposing what they consider an unnecessary and unconstitutional violation of
The principal author of the effort, Michigan Republican Justin Amash, said
he introduced his amendment to the annual Defense Department appropriations
bill to "defend the fourth amendment, to defend the privacy of each and
In opposition, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mike Rogers
of Michigan, asked: "Have we forgotten what happened on September 11?"
Swiping at Amash, he asked: "Are we so small we can only look at how many
Facebook likes we have?"
Congressman Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican on the intelligence
committee, called the abridgment of the NSA's power "foolhardy," terming it
an "overreaction that increases the danger" from terrorism.
The measure, known as the Amash amendment, sought to end the NSA's
years-long secret practice of collecting the phone records of millions of
Americans unsuspected of any crime or foreign intelligence threat. Senator
Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the effort dangerously provided the NSA
with a "human relationship database," something as or potentially more
intrusive than the contents of Americans' phone calls.
Members of Congress of both parties opposed to the bulk NSA surveillance
compared it to general warrants issued by the British colonists. The raucous
and passionate debate exposed deep divisions in Congress over the propriety
of the surveillance, contrary to assertions by the Obama administration and
its allies that Congress had already granted its approval for the effort
before it became public.
The Obama administration, the intelligence agencies and their allies in
Congress made an all-out push to quash the amendment after it unexpectedly
made it past the House rules committee late on Monday. They argue that
accumulating the phone records of Americans is the only way to discover
connections to international terrorism inside the United States. "If you're
looking for the needle in the haystack, you have to have the entire haystack
to look through," deputy attorney general James Cole testified last week.
For four hours on Tuesday, General Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA,
implored legislators that preventing his agency from collecting the phone
records on millions of Americans would have dire consequences for national
The White House entered the fray on Tuesday night, taking the unusual step
of publicly objecting to a proposed amendment to a bill. Hours before the
House began consideration of the Amash amendment, the US director of
national intelligence, James Clapper, warned legislators that "acting in
haste to defund the Fisa business records program risks dismantling an
important intelligence tool."
Clapper called for an "open and candid discussion about foreign surveillance
authorities and careful consideration of the potential effect of limiting
the Intelligence Community's capabilities under these authorities." Earlier
this month, Clapper apologized to the Senate intelligence committee for
untruthfully testifying in March that the NSA was "not wittingly" collecting
data on millions of Americans.
While most contentious House votes in recent years have been marked by
partisanship, the Amash amendment crossed party lines. Obama was joined in
opposing Amash by seven Republican committee chairmen in the House, the Wall
Street Journal, the conservative thinktank the Heritage Foundation, and an
array of Bush-era national security officials, some of whom helped design
the phone-records collection program.
"Denying the NSA such access to data will leave the nation at risk," read a
letter to Congress signed by retired general Michael Hayden, the former NSA
director and chief architect of the warrantless surveillance; former
attorneys general Alberto Gonzales and Michael Mukasey; former CIA director
and House intelligence committee chairman Porter Goss; former director of
national intelligence John Negroponte; Freedom House trustee Diana Villers
Negroponte; and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
For his part, Amash, a Republican, was joined by a coalition of libertarian
Republicans and progressive Democrats. His amendment's principal Democratic
ally was longtime Michigan representative John Conyers, the ranking member
of the House judiciary committee. Applause broke out from either side of the
party aisle for speakers both for and against the Amash amendment.
Conyers called the amendment an effort merely to "curtail the ongoing
dragnet" surveillance, supported by congressman James Sensenbrenner, a
Republican and principal sponsor of the Patriot Act under which the NSA
claims authority for its bulk phone records surveillance.
"The time has come to stop it," Sensenbrenner said.
Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said it was "simply wrong" for the NSA,
which he called well-intentioned, to "collect the data in the first place of
every phone call of every American every day."
Meanwhile, a Democratic leadership announcement of the Amash amendment
described the bulk phone records collection program as harvesting data from
people "not already subject to an investigation." Democratic leader Nancy
Pelosi voted no.
In opposition to the Amash amendment, Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and
Iraq war veteran, said, "Folks, we are at war. You might not like that
truth. I wish we were not at war. But it is the truth."
Ahead of the vote, Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, offered a seeming
alternative to Amash's amendment, albeit one that "clarified" NSA could
collect no content from Americans rather than abridge the NSA phone records
collection. It was supported by surveillance hawks to forestall Amash's
"knee-jerk" effort, said Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the
It succeeded by a wide margin, having 15 minutes for members to vote.
Legislators had only two minutes to vote for the Amash amendment.
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