WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Wednesday tried mightily but fell short in its bid to send a tough, pointed message to the Obama administration: Put limits on the National Security Agency’s ability to collect personal data.
The 217-205 vote rejected an effort to require the government to only gather material on people under investigation. Wednesday’s action marked the first time Congress has extensively debated and voted on the programs since they were publicly revealed last month.
The effort drew an unusual coalition of liberals and conservatives concerned about privacy. But it couldn’t overcome fierce opposition led by the White House and congressional leaders.
“Passing this amendment takes us back to Sept. 10,” warned House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
The House did approve, by a vote of 409-12, a provision that did little more than reinforce current restrictions on data gathering. Critics of the spying programs agreed with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who dismissed it as a “fig leaf.”
The votes dramatically illustrated how many Americans are uneasy about the surveillance programs, disclosed last month via media leaks by former national security contractor Edward Snowden.
“Go home to your constituents and ask them if they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The answer will be ‘yes,’” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., who led the fight.
A new McClatchy-Marist poll, taken July 15-18, found 56 percent of Americans thought the federal government had gone too far in collecting information from phone calls, emails and other Internet activity.
The Amash proposal would have permitted the National Security Agency to gather information if the super-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said the data involves someone under investigation.
Supporting Amash was what Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, termed a “wing-nut coalition,” which he said shared concerns about an overly intrusive government.
“We all want to provide our law enforcement officials with the tools they need to safeguard our country from potential terrorist attacks,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “But we also want to protect the basic rights and liberties guaranteed to all Americans from unwanted and unwarranted searches.”
The measure unleashed a fierce lobbying effort. The American Civil Liberties Union, which favored the measure, aggressively lobbied Democratic House members, hired a Republican strategist to reach out to conservative and tea party-affiliated House Republicans for support, and held telephone briefings for Capitol Hill staffers.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero had an opinion piece in Wednesday’s edition of the conservative-leaning Washington Times praising the amendment.
They faced a gauntlet of opposition from some of Washington’s most powerful voices.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, warned that “acting in haste to defund the FISA Business Records program risks dismantling an important intelligence tool.” Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, visited the Capitol for hastily arranged meetings with lawmakers from both parties. Former officials from the administration of President George W. Bush also voiced their concerns.
Rogers and the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, jointly issued a statement calling the data collection “integral in preventing multiple terrorist attacks, including a plot to attack on the New York Stock Exchange in 2009. If enacted, this amendment would have an immediate – and potentially fatal – operational impact, and make America more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.”
“This is an extreme, knee-jerk reaction” to the current controversy, Ruppersberger argued on the House floor.
The White House had weighed in Tuesday with its own warning.
“This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process,” said Press Secretary Jay Carney. “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.”
Congress has warmed to the idea of a review. After news broke about the programs last month, lawmakers were reluctant to tinker. Traditionally, intelligence and judiciary committees review such activity, and other members of Congress often follow their guidance.
But in recent weeks, constituents have expressed new concerns, prompting hearings and promises of new scrutiny, including one from Rogers during Wednesday’s debate.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain reported one program involved cellphone records. The Guardian, along with The Washington Post, said another program allowed the government access to the online activity of users from nine Internet companies.