National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 18, 2013, before the House Intelligence Committee. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
By Frederick Reese, Mint Press News
Less than two months after the disclosure of secret National Security Agency surveillance programs, a new fight on the issue is taking shape in the U.S. House. At issue is a controversial amendment — introduced by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), supported by a bipartisan coalition, and set for a vote of the full House — that would require the NSA to place limits on the information it collects in its surveillance operations.
Amash’s proposal would force the NSA to attest, when seeking a warrant from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that it would gather information only on individuals that are under investigation. “Blanket” surveillance would not be allowed. The amendment would be added to an annual defense spending bill.
“It’s not a partisan issue. It’s something that cuts across the entire political spectrum,” Amash told the Rules Committee, according to Politico.
“In order for funds to be used by the NSA, the court order would have to have a statement limiting the collection of records to those records that pertain to a person under investigation,” he said. “If the court order doesn’t have that statement, the NSA doesn’t receive the funding to collect those records.”
Amash threatened to block the defense spending bill if his amendment was not given an “up or down” vote. Earlier this month, Amash introduced a similar proposal that won wide bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by 18 Democrats. It was killed in committee.
“This is the best chance we are going to get to keep the NSA from collecting the mass volume of phone records,” said Sina Khanifar, founder of Taskforce, which runs DefundTheNSA.com and has supported Amash’s efforts. “Support in Congress up until now has been pretty mixed and just getting a bill on the floor has been pretty difficult. In the short term, this is the best we are going to get and people will either have to vote for or against it, and people will have to make a statement of where they stand on this issue and make it clear to voters.”
Opposition to changing the status quo
The NSA is adamantly against the Amash amendment. On Tuesday, Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, scheduled a members-only briefing in response to the amendment.
“In advance of anticipated action on amendments to the DoD Appropriations bill, Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee invites your Member to attend a question and answer session with General Keith B. Alexander of the National Security Agency,” read the invitation. The brief was held at “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information level” clearance, meaning that members cannot disclose what was learned in the briefing.
Amash’s amendment would affect the first section of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to request a warrant to receive “metadata” on a person’s phone calls. A court ruling changed the interpretation of the law so that a warrant authorizes the government to surveil all calls it feels is relevant. Many feel that this ruling went against the nature and spirit of the act.
Support for the amendment is likely to be low in Congress. As reported by The Atlantic Wire, only 11.3 percent of all members of Congress support the declassification of the secret court’s decisions. Less than 9 percent favor a reform or rewriting of the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
No members of Congress favor a repeal of the laws.
Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.) has offered a competing amendment that, on the surface, also seeks to restrict NSA’s funding for surveillance activities. However, the amendment’s main provision, which prohibits spending for the purpose of targeting a “U.S. person,” is already prohibited, according to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Since the NSA insists that it surveils only metadata left from electronic transactions and not actual people, the Nugent amendment amounts to a red herring — something to distract from the Amash amendment.
Amash, who was elected to the House in the 2010 Republican sweep, has differentiated himself from other members of the class of 2010 as an anti-establishment, anti-spying, pro-controlled-military-spending libertarian. While many joke of a future Senate run for the Washington novice, the reality is that the junior representative forced House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to negotiate with him. Amash’s coalition controls 20 Republican votes, more than Boehner’s estimated margin for passage.
This has created friction among Republicans.
“The leaders have been clear with members whose amendments are being made in order that they are expected to vote for the bill on final passage if their amendments are adopted,” a leadership aide said to BuzzFeed.
The spending bill ignores a call to reduce the Defense Department’s budget by $50 billion next year as part of sequestration. Due to this, it is unlikely that the bill will pass the Senate.
“The majority ignores sequestration when it suits their purposes — for veterans, homeland security, and today, for defense,” House Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said. “I wonder if my friends on the other side of the aisle will have the courage of their convictions to explain why it is acceptable to ask working families to dig deeper than they already have. Why would we slash research for Alzheimer’s and autism, kick children off the rolls of Head Start, and evict low-income families?”
The bill is $3.4 billion smaller than the Pentagon’s 2014 base budget request, with a war-funding section $1.5 billion larger than what the Pentagon requested.
More controversy on Syria
Amash’s amendment was not the only controversial addition to the defense spending bill. Another amendment was introduced to prohibit the use of funds “with respect to military action in Syria to the extent such actions would be inconsistent” with the War Powers Act. The proposal was introduced out of fear by Republicans that the United States may get tied up in another country’s civil war.
Previously, Republicans criticized the president for being slow to intercede in Syria.
The Pentagon recently offered Congress a detailed list of military options to help remove Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as the cost of those options. The list was released after the White House acknowledged that there is no known way to remove Assad from power quickly or painlessly.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, in a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), pointed out that the options available — training the opposition, conducting limited stand-off strikes, establishing a “no-fly” zone, setting up buffer zones and searching for and destroying chemical weapons stockpiles — would require a massive build-up of military capital and billions of dollars a month.
“All of these options would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime,” Dempsey wrote. “We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action.”