The first legislative challenge to the National Security Agency's (NSA) cyber-spying program has failed to pass the United States House of Representatives.
In response to accusations that the NSA has been monitoring communications of US citizens, Justin Amash, Republican House representative for the state of Michigan, aimed to introduce an amendment to the defense appropriations bill which would have limited the security agency's ability to collect private data.
However, the amendment failed to pass the House of Representatives which voted 205 for it, 217 against.
According to whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, US security agencies including the FBI and CIA are involved in monitoring data such as private emails, phone calls and text messages. These actions are sanctioned under Section 215 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), which allows security agencies to retain communications data belonging to US citizens.
Documents previously leaked by Snowden suggested that external government oversight on these actions was lax and that security agencies were more or less free to select and monitor their own targets.
The amendment proposed by Amash would have limited these collection activities by requiring agencies to provide prior evidence that surveillance targets posed a security threat. Rather than collecting "metadata" encompassing all US citizens, data such as local phone records and overall internet search trends, security agencies would only be allowed to obtain data belonging to specific, certified targets:
"The Amash-Conyers amendment ends NSA's blanket collection of Americans' telephone records," explained Amash on his own website. "It does this by requiring the Fisa court under Section 215 to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation.
"The amendment...ends the mass surveillance of Americans. The government no longer is authorized under Sec. 215 to hold a pool of metadata on every phone call of every American. The amendment also imposes more robust judicial oversight of NSA's surveillance. The Fisa court will be involved every time NSA searches Americans' records, and the court will have a substantive, statutory standard to apply to make sure the NSA does not violate Americans' civil liberties."
Despite being thrown out, the amendment dived both the Republican and Democratic parties. 94 Republicans voted for it, with 134 opposed. 111 Democrats supported the amendment, while 83 voted against it.
"This program has stopped dozens of terrorist attacks," Republican representative Tom Cotton told Reuters. "That means it has saved untold American lives. This amendment ... does not limit the program, it does not modify it, it does not constrain the program, it ends the program. It blows it up."
"Government's gone too far in the name of security," said Ted Poe, another Republican. "Rein in government invasion, no more dragnet operations. Get a specific warrant based on probable cause or stay out of our lives."
Prior to voting, NSA head General Keith Alexander and head of National Intelligence James Clapper, visited policy makers to warn them of the negative effects the amendment would have. In a statement issued ahead of the vote, Clapper warned the amendment would have the "potential effect of limiting the intelligence community's capabilities."
Opposition to the amendment also came from the White House, with the Obama administration issuing a statement calling Amash's proposal "blunt":
"In light of the recent unauthorized disclosures, the President has said that he welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens.
"However, we oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community's counterterrorism tools. This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process. 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."
After the defeat of the Amash amendment, Mike Pompeo, Republican congressman representing the fourth district of Kansas, introduced his own amendment, which outlined that, under section 702 of the Patriot Act, no specific US citizen could be targeted for surveillance by security agencies.
However, as James Clapper explained immediately following the exposure of the Prism program, Section 702 can already not be used to facilitate the targeting US citizens, indicating that, rather than change legislation related to cyber-spying, Pompeo's amendment would merely restate existing law.
Regardless, Pompeo's amendment passed the House with 409 for votes versus 12 against. It will now have to pass the Senate before becoming United States law.