2013 07 24 LAT House rejects limits on NSA collection of phone records – latimes.com


House rejects limits on NSA collection of phone records

The House narrowly rejects an amendment limiting the National Security Agency’s collection of phone records after lobbying from the White House and GOP. Backers included conservatives and liberals.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and supporters of the failed amendment he proposed with Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) say that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records violates the Constitution with little evidence it has made Americans safer. (Tom Williams / Roll Call)

By Ken Dilanian and Michael A. Memoli

July 24, 2013, 10:19 p.m.cut

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 to 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 tea party Republicans and some of the chamber’s most liberal Democrats. A majority of Democrats bucked President Obama and voted for 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-San Jose) 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 recently by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the agency who has since 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 PostABC News poll released Wednesday. Only 42% say the programs make the country safer, the poll found.

Proposed by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the amendment would have required the government to identify a person under investigation before it could collect records of calls to and from that person. Currently, the government obtains orders from a secret federal intelligence court requiring telecommunications providers to give 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 amendment 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 Constitution with little evidence it has made Americans safer.

“When’s the last time a president put out an emergency statement against an amendment?” Amash said on Twitter on Wednesday morning. “The Washington elites fear liberty. They fear you.”

He 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 R. Clapper, 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.”

The only member of the intelligence committee to vote for the amendment was Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).

Schiff said in a statement that the collection program “should be restructured so that the private companies retain possession of their own data rather than the government — something the director of the NSA has acknowledged is technologically feasible — and this amendment would compel the NSA to move in that direction.”

He said such a move “would be more respectful of the privacy interests of the American people while allowing the government to seek the data it needs from the telephone companies to protect the country.”

In a speech before the liberal Center for American Progress on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) hinted that there were other large-scale surveillance programs yet to be revealed. A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden has warned for years that surveillance laws were being interpreted in an expansive way that would surprise most Americans.

“There is nothing in the Patriot Act that limits this sweeping bulk collection to phone records,” he said. “The government can use the Patriot Act’s business records authority to collect, collate and retain all sorts of sensitive information, including medical records, financial records or credit card purchases.”

Asked in a Senate hearing in June whether that was happening, Alexander did not deny it. But he replied, “That would be outside of NSA.”