By a narrow dozen votes, the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday failed to pass an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2014 that would have severed funding for the NSA’s phone record surveillance program turned out by Edward Snowden.
The amendment, put forth by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), would have prevented any of the funds made available in the Appropriations Act from being funneled to any order made under section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Section 501 gives the FBI the ability it needs to apply for an order to access business records, such as phone call metadata, being collected by carriers and service providers such as Verizon.
The close vote, 217-205, heartened some privacy advocates who are seeing a groundswell of awareness not only from the public, but from lawmakers who have taken high-ranking intelligence dignitaries such as NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to task for overreaching on surveillance of Americans in the name of fighting terrorism.
“This amendment reflected the deep discomfort of Americans who don’t want the government collecting data on them indiscriminately. This type of surveillance is unnecessary and unconstitutional, a needless return to the general warrants that our country’s founders fought against,” said Kurt Opsahl, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) senior staff attorney.
The Amash amendment had bi-partisan support, but obviously not enough support to pass; not only did Alexander and Clapper lobby hard to get the House to reject the amendment, but the White House also urged lawmakers to sidestep the amendment. Press secretary Jay Carney released a statement on Tuesday pointing out the Obama administration’s efforts to meet and understand the public’s concerns on the NSA’s surveillance activities, but that it did not support the amendment’s passage.
“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools. This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process,” Carney wrote. “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.”
Not only has Congress grilled Alexander and Clapper, but it warned that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which expires in two years, would not be renewed. Section 215 allows the FBI to order carriers and technology companies to turn over data that could be relevant in a terrorism investigation. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI would not have to show probable cause or grounds that a subject is engaged in criminal activity or a foreign agent.
“Section 215 vastly expands the FBI’s power to spy on ordinary people living in the United States, including United States citizens and permanent residents,” the ACLU said on its website.
During a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee last week, NSA officials were once again questioned about surveillance activities and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), one of the authors of the PATRIOT Act, promised the Justice Department it would soon not be able to use section 215.
“Section 215 expires at the end of 2015,” Sensenbrenner said to the Justice Department. “Unless you realize you’ve got a problem, that is not going to be renewed. There are not the votes in the House of Representatives to renew section 215.” Sensenbrenner also relayed that same message to Attorney General Eric Holder in June, telling him that Congress would not likely renew section 215.
Rainey Reitman, EFF Activism Director, pointed to an EFF filing and a federal court ruling in the case of Jewel v. NSA as further indications that efforts to have lawmakers rein in surveillance activities will not abate.
“We were heartened by the many supporters from across the country who called their representative to support the amendment, laying the foundation for further Congressional action to investigate the NSA spying and enact greater privacy protections,” Reitman said.