WASHINGTON – The Obama administration squared off with skeptical lawmakers Tuesday over efforts to terminate the government’s authority to collect phone records of millions of Americans, a proposition that exposed sharp divisions among members of Congress.
With a vote nearing on amendments to a $598.3 million bill to fund the military, the White House raised the alarm over a move to end the National Security Agency’s authority under the USA Patriot Act, preventing the secretive surveillance agency from collecting records unless an individual is under investigation.
And in an unusual, last-minute lobbying move, Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, traveled to Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to oppose the amendment in separate, closed-door sessions with Republicans and Democrats.
“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a late-night statement. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process.”
Carney said President Barack Obama is still open to addressing privacy concerns in the wake of documents leaked last month by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden that revealed that the vast nature of the agency’s phone and Internet surveillance. But he said Obama wants an approach that properly weighs what intelligence tools best keep America safe.
The proposal offered by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., dovetails with another amendment to the defense bill to cut off funds for the NSA. The House is likely to vote on the amendments today.
The fierce debate over privacy and national security has divided Congress, transcending the partisan lines that typically characterize legislative fights – especially in the House. Tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats have backed the amendments. But leaders from both parties have strongly defended the programs, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio
At issue is where to draw the appropriate balance between national security in a post-9/11 America and the right to privacy that Americans expect to enjoy. National security hawks argue that the surveillance programs have helped disrupt numerous attempted terrorist attacks, and warn that future attacks will be harder to prevent if the programs are dismantled. But libertarians and others have contended that the programs constitute an overly broad intrusion into people’s communications that, because they’re kept secret, have little accountability.