House rejects effort to curb NSA surveillance powers, 205-217

The House on Wednesday rejected an attempt to curtail the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities after a furious last-minute lobbying campaign by the White House to defeat the measure.

The House voted 205-217 against the amendment from Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), which would have prevented the National Security Agency from using the Patriot Act to collect phone records of individuals who aren’t under investigation.

A majority of Democrats — 111 — voted for Amash’s amendment despite the White House pressure, while 83 Democrats voted no. The GOP vote was 94-134.

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Amash’s amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill pitted liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans opposed to the NSA’s massive surveillance activities against both parties’ leadership and the Obama administration.

Wednesday’s vote came after the White House and lawmakers who support the NSA’s surveillance activities launched a major offensive against Amash’s measure after it was granted a vote Monday evening.

The offensive underlined the significance of Wednesday’s vote, which was the first time that Congress weighed in on the NSA’s spying programs since they were revealed by The Guardian and The Washington Post last month.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a statement Wednesday against Amash’s amendment, saying it risked “dismantling an important intelligence tool.”

And on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a rare evening statement announcing the White House’s opposition.

“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools,” Carney wrote.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, meanwhile, made himself available to answer lawmakers’ questions about the program on Tuesday in classified, members-only briefings.

Lawmakers who favor the NSA’s surveillance activities also made a public push against Amash’s amendment. Both the House and Senate Intelligence Committee leaders criticized the measure, while seven House GOP committee chairmen circulated a letter to lawmakers.

The amendment’s supporters had hoped that public outcry over the NSA’s surveillance activities would prompt lawmakers to curtail the secretive agency’s reach.

The amendment would restrict the NSA from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect data on individuals not under investigation, which would essentially prevent the mass collection of phone records.

“We’re here to answer one question for the people we represent: Do we oppose the suspiciousness-less collection of every American’s phone records?” Amash said during debate on the measure.

Democratic Reps. John Conyers (Mich.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) sent a letter to their colleagues Wednesday urging them to support Amash’s measure, pushing back against arguments that it would strip the NSA of a tool to target terrorists.

“Congress did not intend for Section 215 of the Patriot Act to allow the bulk collection of information about all Americans,” the lawmakers wrote. “This amendment would not prohibit the government from spying on terrorists under Section 215, or from collecting information in bulk about Americans under other legal provisions.”

Amash’s opponents warned that the proposal would have unintended consequences and could make it harder for the intelligence community to track terrorists.

“This will have an immediate operational impact, and our country will be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “This is an extreme, knee-jerk reaction to the situation.”

The House also voted Wednesday on a more-limited NSA measure from Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) to prevent the agency from intentionally targeting U.S. citizens. It was approved in a 409-12 vote.

Supporters of Amash’s proposal said that the alternative NSA amendment only re-stated prohibitions against targeting Americans that were already in place.

“This amendment would have no impact whatsoever on the misuses of Section 215,” Rep. Jarrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said.

Amash was only given a vote on his NSA amendment by House Republican leaders after he and a group of libertarian-leaning Republicans threatened to join with Democrats to defeat the rule to the bill on the floor, which would have been an embarrassing setback for House leadership.

The dispute delayed consideration of the Defense spending bill for a week, which is typically considered under an open amendment process.

House leaders ultimately limited amendments to the bill but agreed to hold votes on the two NSA amendments, as well as measures to require congressional approval for military action in Syria and Egypt.

— Jennifer Martinez contributed.