The House narrowly rejected a challenge to the National Security Agency’s secret collection of hundreds of millions of Americans’ phone records Wednesday night after a fierce debate pitting privacy rights against the government’s efforts to thwart terrorism.
The vote was 217-205 on an issue that created unusual political coalitions in Washington, with libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats pressing for the change against the Obama administration, the Republican establishment and Congress’ national security experts.
The showdown vote marked the first chance for lawmakers to take a stand on the secret surveillance program since former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents last month that spelled out the monumental scope of the government’s activities.
It is unlikely to be the final word on government intrusion to defend the nation and Americans’ civil liberties.
“Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on Sept. 11?” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the Intelligence committee, said in pleading with his colleagues to back the program during House debate.
Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, chief sponsor of the repeal effort, said his aim was to end the indiscriminate collection of Americans’ phone records.
His measure, offered as an addition to a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for 2014, would have canceled the statutory authority for the NSA program, ending the agency’s ability to collect phone records and metadata under the USA Patriot Act unless it identified an individual under investigation.
The House later voted to pass the overall defense bill, 315-109.
With a flurry of letters, statements and posts, both sides lobbied furiously in the hours prior to the vote in the House. In a last-minute statement, Clapper warned against dismantling a critical intelligence tool.
Two years ago, in a strong bipartisan statement, the Senate voted 72-23 to renew the Patriot Act and the House backed the extension 250-153.
Since the disclosures this year, however, lawmakers have said they were shocked by the scope of the two programs – one to collect records of hundreds of millions of calls and the other allowing the NSA to sweep up internet usage data from around the world that goes through nine major U.S.-based providers.
The White House and the director of the NSA, Army Gen. Keith Alexander, made last-minute appeals to lawmakers, urging them to oppose the amendment. Rogers and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, implored their colleagues to back the NSA program.
Eight former attorneys general, CIA directors and national security experts wrote in a letter to lawmakers that the two programs are fully authorized by law and “conducted in a manner that appropriately respects the privacy and civil liberties interests of Americans.”
The overall bill must be reconciled with whatever measure the Democratic-controlled Senate produces.