Senate Democrats Call for Curbs on U.S. Intelligence Gathering

Senate Democrats said today they’ll move forward with efforts to curb the National Security Agency’s ability to collect telephone records on millions of Americans, after the House of Representatives narrowly defeated a proposal to limit the spy agency’s intelligence gathering.

“It’s clear that the sentiment is growing for oversight,” Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said today on ABC’s “This Week,” discussing last week’s House vote.

Durbin said he supports limits on the collection of “meta-data” from telephone calls, and said that the courts deciding on the legality of the collection efforts should be “a real court proceeding.”

The legislative debate shows the politically divisive nature of U.S. intelligence collection programs that were disclosed by fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, who has holed up in a Moscow airport since arriving there June 23 in an attempt to gain asylum. The Obama administration opposed the House measure.

Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who has introduced a bill requiring the government to provide specific evidence of justification before gaining access to private records, said indiscriminate data collection is a violation of Americans’ privacy.

Program Effectiveness

“When we’re collecting in bulk all of these records of Americans’ phone calls, we’re not necessarily being any more effective at protecting the country,” he said on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

The House narrowly rejected a proposal July 24 to prevent the NSA from using funds to collect the telephone records. The restriction was an amendment to the annual Defense Department spending bill and would have limited intelligence agencies’ telephone-record collecting only to individuals who are under an investigation authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The amendment was defeated 217-205.

“What you’re doing is taking away the one tool that we know will allow us to make a nexus between a foreign terrorist overseas talking to someone in the United States,” said Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, appearing on “Face the Nation.”

There are “zero privacy violations,” in NSA’s data-collection program, Rogers said.

Unusual Alliances

Debate over the House measure produced unusual alliances, with the White House and many Republicans -- typically at odds - - allied against the proposal. On the other side were the libertarian wing of the Republican Party and Democrats concerned over the government’s intrusion on privacy rights.

“Let’s have an advocate for someone standing up for civil liberties to speak up about the privacy of Americans when they make each of these decisions,” Durbin said.

The close vote ensures debate over curbing government surveillance powers will continue, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters. The amendment was spearheaded by Michigan Republican Representative Justin Amash, who told reporters after the vote he would try to attach similar language to other bills.

The NSA has said it is collecting only metadata on all U.S. calls, such as telephone numbers and duration, and that agency officials access the data only when needed for terrorism investigations.

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.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans a hearing July 31 to examine whether changes should be made to the legal authorities underpinning the government’s electronic surveillance powers.

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