The Washington Post

Proposal to restrict NSA phone-tracking program defeated


Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) leaves his office to walk to the House of Representatives on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A controversial proposal to restrict how the National Security Agency collects Americans’ telephone records failed to advance in the House by a narrow margin Wednesday, a victory for the Obama administration, which has spent weeks defending the program.

Lawmakers voted 217 to 205 to defeat the proposal from an unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative members. Those lawmakers had joined forces in response to revelations by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, that the agency has collected the phone records of millions of Americans — a practice that critics say goes beyond the kind of collection that has been authorized by Congress.

The plan, sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), would have restricted the collection of the records, known as metadata, only when there was a connection to relevant ongoing investigations. It also would have required that secret opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court 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.”

There was little indication that a similar measure would have momentum in the Senate, and the Obama administration made clear that it would veto any such proposal. But the ability of Amash and Conyers to bring the measure to the House floor as an amendment to a Defense Department appropriations bill — and their ability to get more than 200 votes in their favor — was a testament to lawmakers’ growing concerns about the NSA’s bulk collection of data.

U.S. officials have defended the collection and emphasized that intelligence analysts are not reviewing the contents of the calls or listening to Americans’ conversations. The data include the phone numbers called by Americans and the length of the calls.

Before the vote, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, issued a statement saying that supporting the proposal “risks dismantling an important intelligence tool.”

His comments came after Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of the NSA and head of U.S. Cyber Command, spent four hours Tuesday on Capitol Hill 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.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), a key supporter of NSA surveillance programs, also rejected the proposal Wednesday, saying that Amash was trying “to take advantage at any rate of people’s anger” over a series of other controversies in Washington.

“What they’re talking about doing is turning off a program that after 9/11 we realized we missed — we the intelligence community — missed a huge clue,” Rogers said.

Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who as head of the House rarely votes on legislation, voted against the amendment.

Still, Amash said that his proposal had broad, bipartisan support because voters are strongly opposed to the NSA program.

“When you go back to your district, you hear it from Republicans and Democrats,” Amash said at a recent public meeting of some of the most outspoken conservative House Republicans. Of the nine lawmakers who attended the meeting, eight said they planned to support the proposal.

Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-
Idaho) said he would vote for the proposal and credited Democrats and Republicans for working together on the issue. “I call it jokingly the Wing Nut Coalition,” he said, “where you have the right wing and the left wing working together and trying to get things done.”

“Justin is the chief Wing Nut,” Labrador said about Amash.

But other Republicans joined with Rogers in suggesting that the amendment would jeopardize counterterrorism operations.

Rep. Tom Cotton (Ark.), an Army veteran who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the amendment “takes a leaf blower and blows away the entire haystack.”

And Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told her colleagues that she opposed the amendment because telephone records are not considered private property. She also blasted Snowden for disclosing sensitive information to the news media, saying, “This was not an act of a patriot; this was an act of a traitor.”

The House approved the defense appropriations bill 315 to 109 shortly after defeating the amendment. The bill will go to the Senate, where it is expected to be debated after the August recess.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.