WASHINGTON, District of Columbia (AFP) – The House of Representatives narrowly beat back an effort to cut funding to National Security Agency (NSA) programs that scoop up telephone data on millions of Americans.
The amendment, following disclosures about the sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, was backed by an unlikely coalition of ideological opposites — Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats — but their bid fell short in a 205-217 vote.
The legislation, introduced by Michigan Republican Justin Amash, was opposed by the White House and several senior members of Congress, including the House Republican leadership and the heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees.
But it forced lawmakers to go on record on perhaps the most sensitive national security issue of the year: whether the NSA program that collects telephone “metadata” on ordinary Americans breaches constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Perhaps more importantly, it puts President Barack Obama on notice that there are deep bipartisan reservations about how the federal government conducts surveillance on its own people.
“The government collects the phone records, without suspicion, of every single American in the United States,” Amash said in a tense floor debate moments before the vote.
He warned that the government was using fear to help justify its “violation of rights.”
The amendment would have limited such data collection and retention to those Americans who are the subject of a specific investigation.
Democrat Jim Moran voted in favor of the Amash amendment, saying on Twitter that it is “not perfect, but makes clear #NSA needs reforms to protect privacy of Americans.”
Another amendment, which addressed U.S. surveillance but was seen as having far less of an impact than the Amash legislation, passed with overwhelming support, by 409-12.
Both measures were part of a $600 billion Department of Defense spending bill that subsequently passed the House.
As that bill moves to conference with the Senate version, “we will work to foster stronger public confidence in the program’s privacy protections to ensure that we retain this important national security tool,” House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers and top panel Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger said in a joint statement.
During debate Rogers pointed to the strong oversight by all three branches of U.S. government, and warned that ending the program would endanger national security.
“Have our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened to us on September 11th?” he asked, referring to the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
Passing the amendment, he added, “takes us back to September 10th,” when the technology for gathering such data was limited.
Fellow Republican Joe Barton argued that the Patriot Act, which allows the gathering of information relevant to an ongoing investigation, was being abused so that the NSA could gather data on every American.
The NSA operation, Barton said, is “all data all the time. That is simply wrong.”
Earlier Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said his priority was providing “the most meaningful intelligence possible while always abiding by the rule of law and respecting the civil liberties and privacy of every American.”
And yet Americans appear to be increasingly uncomfortable with how the government is gathering information on them.
A new poll by The Washington Post and ABC News shows nearly three-quarters of respondents believe the NSA programs are infringing on some Americans’ privacy rights.
And the percentage of Americans who place a higher priority on privacy than on probing terror threats has doubled in the past decade to about four in 10, its highest point since 2002, the poll said.
The House vote came six weeks after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of programs that collect the phone logs of millions of Americans as well as Internet data from the accounts of foreigners.
Snowden made his way to Moscow, where he has been holed up in the city’s international airport for a month seeking asylum in several nations.
Russia on Wednesday gave him permission to formally enter the country, and Washington repeated its demand that Russia return Snowden to face U.S. justice.