House to debate NSA surveillance. Is the policy in jeopardy?

A defense bill amendment authored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan would end funding for the NSA surveillance program. The White House has mobilized to defeat the measure.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
The sign outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., June 6, 2013.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan walks through a basement tunnel to the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 24, 2013, for the vote on his amendment to the Defense spending bill that would cut funding to the National Security Agency's phone surveillance program.

The National Security Agency’s massive database of the telephone call records of ordinary Americans, collected to help hunt terrorists, is slated to be the subject of debate on the floor of the House of Representatives Wednesday, the first discussion of its kind since top secret documents on the program were leaked to the press last month.

The focus of the floor debate will be an amendment to a defense appropriations bill that would, if passed, halt funding for the NSA’s so-called telephony metadata program. Authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the top secret program has collected about six years’ worth of data records on billions of Americans’ phone-calls, leaked documents suggest.

The amendment, dubbed the “Amash Amendment,” is authored by Rep. Justin Amash (R) of Michigan and cosponsored by former Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, also of Michigan, with 32 co-signers from both parties.

“Today, Members of Congress will have to answer a simple Q: Do you oppose blanket, suspicionless collection of all Americans' phone records?,” Mr. Amash tweeted his followers Wednesday morning.

President Obama’s answer to the question is an unequivocal “No.” While Mr. Obama, in the wake of the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, has said the surveillance programs should be publicly debated – he has also come out strongly against the Amash amendment.

On Tuesday, the White House came out hard and fast – deploying the NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, to hold a classified briefing for lawmakers on the program – but with the understanding that they could not report its details outside the meeting room. The agency also, uncharacteristically, put out a statement opposing the amendment.

“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement released Tuesday. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process. 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.”

Amash seemed to revel in the attention.

“When's the last time a president put out an emergency statement against an amendment? The Washington elites fear liberty. They fear you,” Amash tweeted Wednesday.

To others, too, the White House push is notable for a mere amendment from a junior lawmaker and an indication that opposition is brewing in Congress, especially among Democrats who voted strongly against the Patriot Act when it was first authorized, other lawmakers noted.

"The fact that this has made it to the floor of the House of Representatives is unquestionably good," Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon told the Huffington Post. "It is another step, as I've outlined, in the march to a real debate. We wouldn't have had that seven, eight weeks ago."

But some national security hawks say that while more transparency is clearly needed with such programs, doing away with the data collection program would make the US less secure.

“I think they should hold that much data, but they should also tell people up front that they’ve got it and they need it to search it,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This a proven technology for finding foreign agents, but they should be much more transparent about what they’re doing. It might help if we did like the British and put out an annual report on our surveillance programs that lays these things out – even tell people how many mistakes were made using it.”

Civil libertarians say merely collecting all that data is a recipe for abuse. The House debate and the vote – even if the amendment fails as many predict – will be a strong first step toward rolling that particular program back, and toward wider debate on the other Internet-based data collection programs operated by the NSA.

“I do think the reason the White House has reacted the way it has is because they’re scared of it – and the possibility that a majority of Democrats will vote for the amendment,” says David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress. Support, he says, is not coming just from the “fringe” in Congress.

It would seems so if the response of Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin is any indication. In an op-ed in Politico Monday, he elaborated on his opposition to the telephone metadata collection program.

“The government needs to have the ability to keep sensitive investigations secret, but secret laws are anathema to democracy,” he wrote. “This is how freedom is lost – bit by bit, one secret decision at a time, out of necessity or for some higher purpose that we later come to regret. Such abuses must be reined in, and no false trade-off between freedom and security should be allowed to be decided behind closed doors ever again.”

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