Opponents of NSA surveillance emboldened by close House vote

A close vote in the House on National Security Agency surveillance has given privacy advocates new momentum in their quest to curtail the agency's power.

Critics of the agency are reviewing their options and plotting their next move in an attempt to build on their surprisingly strong showing.

"The House took a shot across the NSA's bow, and the NSA noticed," said Gregory Nojeim, a senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

It's a heady time for privacy advocates, who for years have been on the defensive against claims that tougher privacy standards would endanger national security and help terrorists. 

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"This was the closest vote I've ever seen post-9/11 in regard to reeling in the NSA apparatus," said Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). "The numbers on this vote show there's incredible interest in reforming these programs. I don't think it matters that it didn't pass."

The House amendment, authored by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), would have defunded the NSA's controversial collection of phone records. It drew opposition from both parties' leaders, national security officials and the White House, but still attracted the support of 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats in falling just seven votes short of passage.

"We fight on," Amash tweeted on Wednesday after the vote.

Under the NSA program that was revealed by former government contractor Edward Snowden, the government collects records on virtually all U.S. phone calls. The records include phone numbers, call times and call duration, but not the contents of the conversations, according to the NSA.

Amash and his amendment co-sponsor, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), have introduced the LIBERT-E Act to narrow the Patriot Act to make such dragnet surveillance illegal.

The Conyers-Amash bill would require the government show “specific and articulable” facts that the phone records are material to the investigation and “pertain only to individuals under such investigation.”

One House aide said lawmakers are likely to work on stand-alone legislation to limit the NSA's spying powers, but are also looking for other opportunities to attach amendments to appropriations and reauthorization bills.   

"There is a lot of momentum and energy out there on this after the surprise vote, so we are pursuing every legislative avenue available to bring this back up," the aide said. 

Even Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the author of the Patriot Act, has said the massive phone record collection program has gone too far. 

At a hearing earlier this month, he suggested that Congress would refuse to re-authorize the Patriot Act in 2015 unless the NSA curbs the program.  

Nojeim said the focus will now be on the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing next week on the surveillance programs. Senior intelligence officials are scheduled to testify, including Deputy Attorney General James Cole and John Inglis, the NSA's deputy director.

"I think we'll learn a lot by the reception the intelligence officials receive from the Judiciary Committee members," Nojeim said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of Senate Judiciary, has introduced his own bill to tighten privacy protection standards under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

Nojeim noted that Leahy is one of the Senate's most powerful members and is in a position to move legislation.

Although privacy advocates have a new boost of confidence, the NSA's defenders have no plans to back down.

"We worked it hard. We had to whip," Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said in an interview after the House defeated the Amash amendment. 

"The good news is that we were able to prevail, but that doesn't mean that it's over. If anything it's sending a message that we have to work harder, and we are, on trying to find a way to let the American public know that we're there to protect them and we're going to protect their civil rights and liberties," Ruppersberger added.

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