Today Rep. Amash’s amendment to the 2014 Defense Appropriations Bill failed in the House on a vote of 205 in favor to 217 opposed. When it became known that the amendment would in fact come up for a vote, the powers of the status quo came together to decry its tenets as ham-fisted and irresponsible.
The White House called the amendment a “blunt approach” that is not “the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.” Naturally, the irony of that specific complaint resonates: The intelligence programs in question were not enacted with any of those forms of debate. To ask that their rescinding be held to a higher standard then their enaction is hubris of a real sort.
Underlining how seriously those who are in favor of maintaining the phone record collection program took the amendment’s threat to yank its funding, General Alexander himself — the good general heads the NSA — gave briefings on the Hill to House Democrats and Republicans, albeit in different sessions.
A formal statement from the White House and face time with the head of the NSA are some of the larger guns available for this sort of court press.
The NSA has come under heavy scrutiny for its collection of both Internet data and telephonic records by privacy advocates, certain members of Congress, and what is sometimes referred to as the netroots — efforts that include broad surveillance of U.S. citizens and the retention of information relating to their actions. Those in favor claim that it doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment and is a key tool in the fight to protect American interests and national security. Opponents directly proclaim that the various NSA data-collection efforts are beyond unconscionable and should instead be viewed as nothing less than utterly un-American given its diametric opposition to hallowed Constitutional rights.
This isn’t a small argument, and it goes beyond our current simplistic ideological dialogue in which there are only two perspectives: left and right. Instead, we’re seeing a number of supposedly small government members of Congress stand behind action that gives the Federal government chronic authority to end the right to privacy. At the same time, the argument that national security can at times take primacy over privacy has been upheld in the past by American courts.
Before the vote, House members opposed to the amendment circulated a letter that included the following text:
While many Members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans’ civil liberties, eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty, under Article I of the Constitution, to provide for the common defense. Furthermore, the Amash amendment would have unintended consequences for the intelligence and law enforcement communities beyond the metadata program.
Rep. Rogers was among those signed to the above. From the other end, a different House cadre came out in favor of the amendment, including Rep. Lofgren, who released a letter that said:
In short, this amendment would not prohibit the government from spying on terrorists under Section 215, or from collecting information in bulk about American’s under other legal provisions. However, the amendment would prevent the bulk collection of sensitive information on innocent Americans under Section 215 – and important improvement.
The vote was surprisingly close, with broad bipartisan support in favor of the amendment, and equally strong support opposed; this is a vote that split parties. The final tally was 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats in favor, and 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats opposed.
That the vote was so close all but guarantees that as an issue, the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs will be challenged again, and perhaps successfully.
Top Image Credit: Andrew Malone