CAPITOL HILL— The U.S. House of Representatives has narrowly defeated an amendment that would have ended a National Security Agency surveillance program that collects hundreds of millions of Americans' phone records.
The vote turned into a clash between President Barack Obama and Democratic and Republican national security leaders in Congress on one side, who say the program is vital to fighting terrorism, and a coalition of libertarian Republican and liberal Democratic lawmakers on the other side, who say it violates basic civil liberties.
Republican Representative Justin Amash of Michigan was the chief sponsor of the amendment that would have limited the NSA’s ability to collect phone records and other metadata under the Patriot Act to cases where the agency has first identified an individual who is the target of an investigation. Amash challenged his fellow lawmakers.
“We are here to answer one question for the people we represent: do we oppose the suspicion-less collection of every American’s phone records?”
The amendment was one of 100 attached to a $598 billion defense spending bill for 2014, and one that provoked some of the most passionate debate on the floor of the House on striking the right balance between national security and privacy concerns.
The vote was 205 in favor of the amendment and 217 against.
Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers strongly defended the NSA phone records program, saying that to kill it would be to take the United States back to the time before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when the intelligence community lacked vital data. He said the NSA programs have helped foil attacks 54 times.
“Fifty-four times this and the other program stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe, saving real lives," Rogers said. "This is not a game.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney had issued a statement saying President Obama opposes the effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of the intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools. Carney said the president is still open to addressing privacy concerns awakened by leaks of former contractor Edward Snowden last month, but that this was not the right approach. The Snowden leaks have caused concern in the U.S. and outrage abroad about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance of U.S. citizens and of phone and email records of citizens abroad.
Even if the amendment had passed in the House, it would likely have failed in the Senate, and would have been vetoed by Obama. But some lawmakers say the close vote and emotional debate is an indication that Congress is likely to investigate the scope and magnitude of NSA surveillance in the months to come.