House Rejects Proposal to Defund Sweeping U.S. Government Surveillance

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By Alexei Alexis  

 

The House July 24 defeated a proposal that would have forced the federal government to end sweeping phone surveillance activities.

The bipartisan measure was offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) as an amendment to the fiscal year 2014 Defense Department appropriations bill (H.R. 2397).

The amendment, which was defeated on a 205-217 vote, had been opposed by the White House and the chairmen of key House committees.

At issue is Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, a so-called business records provision, which allows the government to obtain an order from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court compelling a company to turn over “any tangible thing” related to a terrorism investigation, including sensitive customer data.

In the wake of press reports, the Obama administration has confirmed the existence of a National Security Agency program that involves the bulk collection of U.S. customer phone records under Section 215. News of the program has prompted outrage from members of Congress and the public (12 PVLR 1006, 6/10/13).

Amendment Insisted on Tighter Anti-Terror Nexus.

The Amash amendment would have prevented funds provided under the defense bill from being used to execute a Section 215 order unless it specifically targeted a person who was being investigated for anti-terrorism purposes.

The amendment was co-sponsored by House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), who teamed up with Amash in June to unveil legislation (H.R. 2399) to overhaul the PATRIOT Act (12 PVLR 1272, 7/22/13).

Leahy Active in Senate

Similar legislation (S. 1215) has been introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) (12 PVLR 1153, 7/1/13). Both bills are still awaiting committee action.

Leahy announced that his committee will be holding a July 31 hearing on government surveillance issues.

“I remain deeply concerned about the expansive use of government surveillance under FISA,” he said in a statement. “The authorities under this law, and the government's interpretation of them, must be carefully scrutinized by Congress. As I have said, just because we have the ability to collect huge amounts of data, it does not mean that we should be doing so.”

White House, Key Republicans Opposed

The White House issued a statement July 23 saying that it opposed efforts in the House to “hastily dismantle” one of the intelligence community's counterterrorism tools.

“This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process,” the statement said. “We urge the House to reject the Amash Amendment, and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.”

The amendment also prompted objections from a group of key House Republicans, including Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).

“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,” the congressmen said in July 23 “dear-colleague” letter. “Furthermore, the Amash amendment would have unintended consequences for the intelligence and law enforcement communities beyond the metadata program.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) issued a joint statement July 23 saying that the appropriate congressional panels should continue debating the issue and that any amendments to defund the program on appropriations bills would be unwise.

“Since the public disclosure of the business records program, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has explored how the program can be modified to add extra privacy protections without sacrificing its effectiveness,” the statement said.

 


The Amash amendment is available at http://amendments-rules.house.gov/amendments/AMASH_018_xml2718131717181718.pdf.

H.R. 2397, as reported in the House, is available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-113hr2397rh/pdf/BILLS-113hr2397rh.pdf.

A House Armed Services Committee blog post included the text of the “dear colleague” letter is available at http://armedservices.house.gov/index.cfm/2013/7/seven-house-chairmen-join-wsj-opposing-amash-amendment-to-defense-appropriations-bill.