When the White House and the National Security Agency went all out to defeat Rep. Justin Amash's amendment to cut funding for NSA's massive collection and storage of Americans' telephone records, the Michigan Republican cited that opposition as a point in favor of passing the measure.
"When's the last time a president put out an emergency statement against an amendment?" Amash (shown in photo) tweeted late Tuesday night. "The Washington elites fear liberty. They fear you." On Wednesday, the House narrowly defeated his amendment 207-217, much closer than the White House would have liked.
Amash's amendment to the defense appropriations bill would have limited the surveillance of phone records to cases where the NSA could demonstrate a reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity, instead of the current practice of gathering billions of call records from an unknown number of millions of Americans' everyday communications. NSA officials have argued that the agency needs to have those records in order to trace the contacts made by and to suspected terrorists. Civil libertarians claim the practice is a government overreach and a serious invasion of privacy rights and expectations of the American people.
"This is the moment," Michelle Richardson, a surveillance lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union told the British publication The Guardian, as backers of the amendment sensed support growing in Congress and the public at large for some means of limiting the extent of the government's data collection under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, a revamping and expansion of intelligence gathering authority passed by Congress following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "Just how important this vote is was underlined when they started doing the classified briefings and the intelligence community came out in full force and acknowledged this amendment would stop their bulk collection under 215," Richardson said.
Warrants for the data collection are routinely issued by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. The law was passed after revelations in the mid-1970s of illegal CIA and FBI activities prompted Congress to establish procedural safeguards against excessive surveillance carried out in the name of fighting crime and protecting national security. Instead, the FISA court became "a bureaucratic mechanism to rubber stamp government applications for surveillance," wrote John Whitehead of the libertarian Rutherford Institute in an article appearing Wednesday at lewrockwell.com.
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Photo of Rep. Justin Amash: AP Images