House effort to restrict NSA data collection fails

Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) added an amendment to the Pentagon appropriations bill that would have sharply restricted the collection of data from the telephone communications of American citizens.  They were looking to shut down the “blanket” harvesting of data by the National Security Agency, brought to public attention in the first wave of disclosures by renegade security contractor Edward Snowden.

(Snowden, by the way, is still living at the Moscow airport, although he was supposed to receive temporary asylum in Russia.  An unspecified paperwork snafu left him marooned at the Cinnabon for a while longer, although the Russians thoughtfully provided him with fresh clothes and a copy of “Crime and Punishment.”  If things don’t work out in the transparent civil-liberties paradise of Russia, Iran has invited Snowden to swing by Tehran and tell them everything he knows about U.S. intelligence.)

It’s not every day that a libertarian Republican with a portrait of Friedrich Hayek hanging on the wall of his office gets together with the co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus to sponsor an amendment, as Nick Gillespie noted over at the Daily Beast, observing that they also make an offbeat team because Conyers has been in Congress longer than the brash young libertarian Amash has been alive.  Rep. Amash is one of the Republicans labeled a “wacko bird” by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) over his privacy concerns, but Conyers probably doesn’t have to worry about drawing the wrath of McCain by teaming up with him, because John McCain would never insult a Democrat like that.

Gillespie explains what the amendment was about:

The Amash-Conyers Amendment was attached to a $598 billion defense spending bill that passed easily and would have, writes Amash, ended the ???NSA???s blanket collection of Americans??? telephone records. It does this by requiring the FISA court under Sec. 215 [of The Patriot Act] to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation.”

In a characteristically lucid explanation posted on his Facebook page (Amash gives reasons for all his votes there), the University of Michigan Law grad underscores that the bill wouldn???t have forbidden legitimate investigations into suspected terrorist activity, but it would have provided clear limits on the government???s at-will ability to vacuum up phone and other metadata. Amash???s interest in small government doesn???t end with cutting cowboy-poetry readings and agricultural subsidies (he voted against the recent farm bill because it increases spending on subsidies and crop insurance).

For historical interest, and because this remains a discussion worth having no matter how congressional votes play out, Amash’s fact sheet for the amendment can be read in full here.  The goal was to limit data collection to actual terrorism suspects and their contacts, instead of collecting and storing cell phone metadata on everyone.

Just as a bipartisan coalition formed in support of the Amash-Conyers amendment, opposition was bipartisan as well.  The Obama White House obviously didn’t like it.  Opponents in Congress argued that concern about the NSA program was exaggerated, and the collection of cell phone metadata remained an essential terror-fighting tool for the post-9/11 world.  One Republican opponent of the Amash amendment was Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who appeared on the Rusty Humphries radio show on Wednesday to explain why she voted against it:

Bachmann said she understood concerns about privacy and mistrust of the NSA, but asserted that the cell phone data had “never been misused,” and that “people were told falsely – it’s not true – that people’s phones were being tapped, and that their phone messages were being recorded, and that their email messages were being recorded by the federal government and being read.”  She said the whole controversy was started by a “traitor” whose disclosures have “hurt the security of the United States” and helped Islamic jihad.  Bachmann proclaimed that Rep. Amash was “flat-out wrong” in asserting Fourth Amendment privacy rights for telephone metadata, which she compared to the address information written on the outside of postal envelopes.

There were quite a few spirited exchanges during the debate, as chronicled by Politico:

???Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on September 11,??? asked House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). But former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), answered as bluntly: ???The time has come to stop and the way we do [that] is to approve this amendment.???

As chairman, Rogers promised that he would come back and address privacy concerns when his panel writes its annual authorization for intelligence agencies this fall. For both he and his ranking Democrat, Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the narrowness of the vote was a jolting reminder of the emotions stirred by the issue.

It ???goes too far, too fast on the wrong legislative vehicle,??? Ruppersberger said of the proposed changes. But he conceded that new ways had to be found to address the concerns raised by members.

In the end, the Amash-Conyers amendment was narrowly defeated, 217-205.  Republicans were 134-94 against it, while Democrats voted 111-82 in favor.  That’s not too shabby for a bill opposed by the White House and the leadership of both parties.  “We came close,” Amash said on his Facebook page.  “If just seven Representatives had switched their votes, we would have succeeded.  Thank YOU for making a difference.  We fight on to defend liberty.”

Update: Rep. Mike Rogers on Twitter Thursday morning: “Irresponsible NSA defunding amendment tried ‘to take advantage of people’s anger’ on real scandals (IRS).  Glad it failed.”  He’s quoting the part about taking advantage of public anger  from the Washington Postwhich was quoting him, so he probably didn’t have to put that part in quotes.