WASHINGTON – After furious lobbying by the Obama administration and Republican leaders, the House on Wednesday narrowly defeated an amendment to curtail the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of U.S. phone call records.
But the breadth of support in both parties for the amendment, which lost 217-205, underscored the extent of the disquiet in Congress with the notion that the NSA is collecting information on nearly every call made by nearly every American.
The strongest backers of the measure were an oil-and-water mix of deeply conservative Republicans and some of the chamber’s most liberal Democrats. A majority of Democrats bucked President Barack Obama and voted for the amendment. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Raul Labrador of Idaho were among the Republicans who supported the amendment.
During the debate, few lawmakers stood to defend NSA’s surveillance programs, while speaker after speaker rose to denounce them.
“The government has gone too far in the name of national security,” Ted Poe, R-Texas, said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., ridiculed the notion that the records of every American could meet the standard in the Patriot Act’s Section 215, which allows the government to obtain business records “relevant to an investigation.”
She noted that U.S. officials said they used the massive database to hunt for connections to 300 known terrorist phone numbers in 2012. “Because 300 inquiries were made, the records of every single American became relevant?” she said. “That’s a joke.”
The debate comes amid signs that most Americans are uncomfortable with what they have learned about the NSA’s domestic surveillance. The phone-record program was revealed last month by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the agency who fled to Russia, where he is seeking asylum.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe NSA programs are infringing on some privacy rights, and about half see those programs as encroaching on their privacy, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday. Only 42 percent say the programs make the country safer, the poll found.
Offered by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich., the amendment would have required the government to identify a person under investigation before it could collect records of calls made to and from that person. Currently, the government obtains orders from a secret federal intelligence court requiring telecommunications providers to turn over to the NSA calling records on nearly every American.
Officials say they need all the records to be able to identify U.S. residents unknown to the intelligence community who may be working with foreign terrorists.
The Amash measure would also have applied to other bulk collection of U.S. business records under the Patriot Act, although it’s not clear what other records, if any, are being collected. Amash and his allies argue that bulk collection violates the U.S. Constitution with little evidence it has made Americans safer.
“When’s the last time a president put out an emergency statement against an amendment?” he tweeted early Wednesday morning. “The Washington elites fear liberty. They fear you.”
Amash was referring to a statement issued Tuesday night by White House spokesman Jay Carney. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process,” Carney said. “We urge the House to reject the Amash amendment, and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.”
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads the NSA, met with lawmakers Tuesday to argue against the proposal. House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who chairs the intelligence committee, also opposed the amendment. But Rogers, speaking on the House floor, said the intelligence committee would consider inserting more privacy protections into surveillance law, acknowledging that “the American people have legitimate concerns.”
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