House to Debate Limiting NSA After Snowden Disclosure

The fallout from Edward Snowden’s disclosures of top-secret surveillance programs is reaching the floor of the U.S. House through debate over proposals to restrict the National Security Agency.

The discussion, to be limited to 30 minutes as soon as today, is being pushed by Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican. His proposal to limit the NSA’s use of funds to collect data on telephone calls made by U.S. citizens is opposed by House leaders and the Obama administration.

Amash has proposed an amendment to the annual Defense Department spending measure, H.R. 2397, that would prohibit intelligence agencies from collecting phone records unless a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order stipulates that the records pertain to an individual under investigation. That would put an end to the NSA’s blanket collection of metadata on calls, such as telephone numbers and duration.

“All we need to do is debate a simple question: Should we fund the NSA’s potential collection of the personal data of Americans?” Amash said July 22 in testimony before the House Rules Committee, which voted to permit floor consideration of his amendment and one other targeting the NSA.

The push by some House members to place limits on the NSA led the head of the agency, General Keith Alexander, to schedule two briefings on surveillance programs for lawmakers yesterday on short notice. The NSA has said that while it gathers information on all U.S. phone calls to have it at hand, it accesses the data only when needed for terrorism investigations.

Bipartisan Support

Snowden, a former security contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., faces U.S. espionage charges for disclosing secret phone and Internet surveillance programs. He fled to Hong Kong and then Moscow, where he has been at an airport while seeking a nation that will grant him asylum.

Amash’s amendment has bipartisan support from Representatives John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican, Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, and Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican.

The other amendment, offered by Florida Republican Representative Richard Nugent, would prohibit the NSA from using funds in the almost $600 billion measure to “acquire, monitor or store the contents” of electronic communications by “a United States person.” Nor could the NSA gather such data for the purposes of targeting an individual in the U.S.

The amendment doesn’t make a distinction between a U.S. resident or a U.S. citizen.

Obama Opposition

President Barack Obama’s administration, while welcoming debate on the balance between national security and individual privacy, is calling on House lawmakers to vote against the Amash amendment, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools,” Carney said last night in an e-mailed statement. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.”

House Republican leaders also argued against Amash’s proposal, warning in a letter yesterday of “unintended consequences for the intelligence and law enforcement communities.”

“Eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty, under Article I of the Constitution, to provide for the common defense,” according to the letter, signed by Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky; Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan; Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte; and C.W. “Bill” Young of Florida, head of the defense appropriations subcommittee.

Senate Letter

The leaders of the Senate intelligence committee urged the House to reject Amash’s amendment, saying the NSA’s phone-records program “has contributed to disrupting numerous terrorist attacks against our nation.”

“Since the public disclosure of the business records program, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has explored how the program can be modified to add extra privacy protections without sacrificing its effectiveness,” Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said in a joint statement. “We believe this debate in the congressional intelligence and judiciary committees should continue and that any amendments to defund the program on appropriations bills would be unwise.”

After Alexander’s briefing yesterday, Amash said that while the general provided good information, “I don’t think it’s going to change people’s views on the collection of Americans’ phone records.”

Amash’s Insistence

Amash’s insistence on a floor vote forced the Rules Committee to depart from its usual practice of permitting an unlimited number of appropriations amendments to get floor consideration.

Leaders count on their rank-and-file to keep the House running smoothly by supporting them on procedural votes. Amash said he threatened to oppose the rule for floor consideration -- a step needed to get the defense bill before the full House.

“I wouldn’t support a rule that didn’t have an amendment like this,” Amash told reporters.

Amash has bucked the leadership before. He’s one of 12 Republicans who didn’t vote for House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio when he stood for Speaker in January.

Losing Republican votes at a preliminary stage is an embarrassment for a leadership team, which then may have to turn to the opposing party to provide the margin needed to keep the schedule on track.

Defense Measure

The House began debate yesterday on as many as 100 amendments to the measure that funds the Pentagon and related agencies. While most are getting 10 minutes of floor discussion, consideration of the NSA amendments will receive 15 minutes each.

“The American people are ready for this debate, they’re hoping we’re going to have this debate,” Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the Rules Committee, said July 22. “This, quite frankly, should involve a week of debate because it’s about who we are as a country.”

Amash said he’s optimistic about his chances of winning a House vote to restrict the NSA’s surveillance practices.

“There’s widespread disapproval of this program by members of Congress on both sides,” he said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.