House Rejects Restricting NSA Access to Telephone Records

U.S. lawmakers angry about domestic telephone record-collection lost an effort to curtail funding for the intelligence-gathering tools revealed by fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden.

On a 205-217 vote, the House today rejected an amendment by Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, that would have limited the National Security Agency’s ability to collect phone records.

The amendment’s implementation could have created a new burden on telephone companies to retain bulk data, in addition to ending the NSA’s blanket collection of phone records. Those possibilities led the White House, Republican leaders and many congressional Democrats to oppose the proposal, pitting them against lawmakers from both parties who champion civil liberties and privacy.

After the vote, Amash said he plans to pursue efforts to curb the NSA’s authority to collect phone records. He said the White House intervened strongly to urge Democrats to keep the program intact.

“How embarrassing for a president who claims to be a defender of civil liberties to be pushing for the collection of the phone records of every American in the U.S,” he said in an interview.

Alexander’s Briefing

The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, gave lawmakers a hastily scheduled briefing yesterday to make the case for leaving the program as it is.

NSA and White House lobbying was key to the amendment’s failure, Amash and Representative John Conyers of Michigan, an amendment co-sponsor and the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in separate interviews.

The proposed change to the Defense appropriations bill would have prohibited intelligence agencies from collecting phone records unless a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order stipulates that the records pertain to an individual under investigation.

Along with putting an end to the NSA’s blanket collection of metadata on calls, such as telephone numbers and duration, the provision would have caused potential headaches for information technology companies.

‘Significant Burden’

“It could be a significant burden depending on how the government wants us to keep this data and store it,” Trey Hodgkins, a senior vice president for TechAmerica, a Washington-based trade group that represents Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and CenturyLink Inc., said in a phone interview. “You’re talking about potentially extremely huge data sets.”

The House adopted an amendment by Republican Representative Richard Nugent of Florida that sought to prohibit the NSA from using funds in the almost $600 billion Pentagon spending measure to “acquire, monitor or store the content” of electronic communications by “a United States person.”

The Nugent amendment was viewed by some lawmakers as providing political cover for those who didn’t want to vote for Amash’s proposal.

Representative Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, said in an interview that the Nugent amendment offered lawmakers a chance to tell the NSA they’re “uncomfortable with what we’re doing,” without killing the program entirely.

“What we’re basically saying with this amendment is we don’t trust you so we’re being very, very clear where the lines are,” he said, adding that the Amash amendment was “a bridge too far.”

‘Fig Leaf’

Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who supported Amash’s measure, said the Nugent amendment simply restates current law and is “a fig leaf” that wouldn’t change the program’s operation.

Privacy advocates such as Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, supported both amendments.

The Amash amendment would have made the government use its authority as originally intended by the Patriot Act, under which records only can be sought for particular investigations, Martin said in a phone interview.

“The fact that the House leadership allowed debate and vote on this amendment reflects the deep concern in the Congress about both the secrecy and the breadth of these authorities,” she said.

The debate in Washington produced unusual alliances, with the White House and Republican House -- typically at odds -- allied against Amash’s proposal. On the other were the libertarian wing of the Republican Party and Democrats concerned about the government’s intrusion on privacy rights.

Vote Breakdown

Supporting the amendment were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats. Voting against it 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats. The House’s two top Republicans, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, and the chamber’s top Democrats, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, all opposed the amendment.

“It’s a funny issue because it’s not partisan; it’s just that eternal debate between liberty and security,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who also voted against Amash’s proposal.

The NSA has said that while it gathers information on all U.S. phone calls to have it at hand, agency officials access the data only when needed for terrorism investigations. Current law states that the NSA cannot target a U.S. person without an individual warrant.

Clapper Statement

While Alexander’s remarks in his briefing weren’t made public, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper today issued a statement in opposition to the Amash amendment.

“I join others who caution that acting in haste to defund the FISA Business Records program risks dismantling an important intelligence tool,” Clapper said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a written statement yesterday saying the administration opposed “the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools.”

“This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process,” Carney said.

‘Regular’ Process

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, and the head of the Armed Services Committee, Republican Representative Buck McKeon of California, said before the vote that though concerns about the spy programs are worthy of debate, the matter shouldn’t be handled as part of the Pentagon spending bill.

“Any such changes ought to proceed through a regular legislative process so the effects can be understood and debated fully,” the chairmen said in a statement.

Rogers said he’d revisit the issue later this year in a larger intelligence bill.

After the defeat of the Amash amendment, the House passed the overall Defense Department spending bill, H.R. 2397, by a vote of 315-109.

Amash, first elected to the House in 2010, said he will now seek to curb the surveillance program through the Judiciary Committee. Along with Conyers, his allies in the effort include Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the panel’s former chairman.

The close vote on Amash’s amendment ensures that the debate will continue, Conyers said.

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.

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