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House proposal to curtail NSA in response to Edward Snowden’s leaks fails narrowly

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A proposal to restrict the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities, which have been the subject of intense controversy since former agency contractor Edward Snowden gave journalists secret documents describing the operations, failed narrowly in the House Wednesday night. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) offered the proposal as an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill:

The plan would restrict how the NSA can collect bulk phone records and metadata under the Patriot Act. Agency officials would be able to continue collecting telephone records, but only for people connected to relevant ongoing investigations.

The proposal also would require that secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court opinions be made available to lawmakers and that the court publish summaries of each opinion for public review.

Conyers said the proposal “would curtail the ongoing dragnet collection and storage of the personal records of innocent Americans.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) blasted the Amash-Conyers proposal Wednesday, calling it “inflammatory and certainly misleading.”

In an interview with a Michigan radio station, Rogers said that Amash was trying “to take advantage, at any rate, of people’s anger” over various scandals such as the IRS investigation of conservative groups and the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi. . . .

The amendment earned a strong rebuke from the Obama administration, which had spent the last several days attempting to blunt support for the proposal.

On Wednesday James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said that supporting the proposal “risks dismantling an important intelligence tool.” His comments came after Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of NSA and head of U.S. Cyber Command, spent four hours on Capitol Hill Tuesday speaking with lawmakers. The White House had also called the amendment an attempt to “hastily dismantle” counterterrorism tools and “not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.”

But Amash said Wednesday that support for his proposal is “overwhelming.” ”When you go back to your district,” he said, “you hear it from Republicans and Democrats.”

“It’s not a partisan, it’s about the American people versus the elites in Washington,” he added later. “And what the government is currently doing is collecting the phone records without suspicion of all Americans – every single person in the United States. That’s a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.”

Ed O’Keefe

The vote was surprising in that it bisected partisan boundaries, with the leadership of both parties opposed and confronting a rebellion in their rank and file:

Who would have thought that Amash and Conyers — separated by 51 years in age and poles apart on most political issues — could join together and earn nearly enough votes to win the day?

But both men enjoy the respect and wide following of their like-minded partisan colleagues, proving that when the chamber’s most conservative and most liberal members find agreement, they can stitch together a sizable caucus. (Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) jokingly called the effort the “Wing Nut Coalition” on Wednesday and anointed Amash “Chief Wing Nut.”)

And yet, who would have thought that such an issue would find Boehner and Pelosi, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and the chairmen of the two House campaign committees — Democratic Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) — voting together in opposition?

Ed O’Keefe

Amash and Conyers failed, but the vote was still seen by many as a symbolic victory because of its closeness:

The fact that Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) failed to push through his amendment — one that would have limited the NSA’s ability to gather telephone metadata on Americans — is a defeat for the congressman, of sorts. But even if the language had made it into the House’s defense authorization bill, it would’ve been stripped out in conference with the Senate. It also faced a near-certain presidential veto. In short, there was an upper limit to how far Amash could’ve gone regardless of how the vote turned out. . . .

Amash faced stiff high-ranking opposition. The leadership of both parties, as well as the White House, vocally opposed weakening the NSA’s ability to conduct surveillance. But Amash still managed to mount a strong defense — which suggests that momentum is building for critics of the NSA. . . .

“They were very worried,” said Conyers of the Democratic leadership, which opposed the amendment along with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “And the fact that they won this narrowly means they still are worried because this thing isn’t over yet.”

Earlier this month, polls from Quinnipiac and The Washington Post showed a swing in public opinion against the NSA programs. That’s in contrast to a Pew survey conducted immediately after the NSA story broke that showed only a quarter of Americans following those developments closely.

In a few weeks, the online advocates at Restore the Fourth plan to launch new protests against the NSA. In New York, the demonstrations will closely resemble the organization’s events that took place July 4. But in other cities, said spokesman Derick Bellamy, organizers will bring in policy experts to teach workshops and do a bit of on-the-spot education. Restore the Fourth aims to get 100,000 attendees during its “1984 Day” on Aug. 4.

Senior lawmakers and the White House hoped that last night’s vote would become a release valve — a strategic opportunity to let upset congressmen blow off some steam. But, it seems, Team Amash views the amendment’s defeat as simply a tactical setback.

Brian Fung

Far from Washington, a woman in Idaho has sued President Obama over the NSA’s surveillance:

Anna Smith is a mother of two who lives in rural Idaho, works the night shift as a nurse and goes to the gym a lot. She rarely follows the news and knows little about the debate over government surveillance and privacy that has rocked Washington in recent weeks.

None of that is stopping her from suing the president of the United States.

Smith is the plaintiff in one of six legal challenges that have been filed over the government’s sweeping collection of telephone and Internet records. Her attorney is her husband. She doesn’t understand the legal technicalities and worried the case could distract from her job and parenting duties.

But the Idaho native knows how she feels about the prospect of anyone tracking who she is calling from her cellphone: She’s outraged. “It’s none of their business what I’m doing: who I call, when I call, how long I talk,” Smith, 32, said in a telephone interview. She added: “I think it’s awesome that I have the right to sue the president. I’m just a small-town girl.”

Smith’s lawsuit, filed June 12 in federal court in Idaho, names President Obama “in his official capacity as President of the United States of America,” along with other top officials. Like most of the other cases, it urges a judge to declare unconstitutional a National Security Agency program that scoops up the telephone records of millions of Americans from U.S. telecommunications companies. . . .

But Smith’s suit is in many ways the most unusual of the recent cases — and it arguably best exemplifies ordinary Americans’ anxieties about government surveillance. Nearly three-quarters of Americans now say the NSA is infringing on personal privacy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The other suits were brought by what might be considered heavyweight activists: the American Civil Liberties Union; two digital rights organizations; and Larry Klayman, who founded the conservative group Judicial Watch. Smith just happens to have a cellphone and a point of view.

Her husband, Peter, is a commercial litigator who has never handled a constitutional or national security case. His co-counsel, Lucas Malek, worked briefly as a prosecutor and is now an Idaho Republican state representative and part-time lawyer.

“We grew up in northern Idaho, for goodness sakes,” said Peter Smith, 35. “This is probably the biggest thing we will ever do.”

Jerry Markon

Snowden himself remains at a Moscow airport. For past coverage of his flight from U.S. authorities, continue reading here.

View Photo Gallery: A 30-year-old government contractor has been charged with espionage for recent leaks of classified intelligence. He has vaulted from obscurity to international notoriety, joining the ranks of high-profile leakers such as Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.

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