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Strange bedfellows: House defeats effort to rein in NSA phone-tracking

July 25, 2013 at 12:47 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, July 25 (UPI) -- A rare left-right bloc of House members vowed after a narrow loss to redouble efforts to curb a national-security program that amasses Americans' phone records.

"This is only the beginning," Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said after the House voted 216 to 205 to defeat a proposal he sponsored with Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., to restrict the National Security Agency's ability to collect Americans' phone records.

The measure -- an amendment to the military-spending bill that later passed -- would have limited NSA phone surveillance to specific targets of law-enforcement investigations, not broad dragnets.

It would have also required the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's secret opinions to be made available to lawmakers and opinion summaries to be made available to the public.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said lawmakers would keep coming back with legislation to curtail the dragnets for "metadata" records, whether through phone records or Internet surveillance.

At the very least, the USA Patriot Act section the NSA and FBI cite to justify mass phone surveillance will be allowed to expire in 2015, he said.

"It's going to end -- now or later," Nadler said. "The only question is when and on what terms."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., promised to draft a bill in the fall to add more privacy protections to government surveillance programs.

Their threats and promises came after the House vote, which was far closer than originally expected, despite last-minute lobbying by the Obama administration and House intelligence panel members.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who as head of the House rarely casts a ballot, voted against the amendment.

Indeed, Boehner found himself in the rare position of being on the same side as President Barack Obama. He was joined in opposing the amendment by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a supporter of the Tea Party movement.

Ultimately, 83 Democrats joined 134 Republicans to defeat the measure. Voting for the measure were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.

The unusual alliance of the House's right and left wings was dubbed "the wingnut coalition" by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who called Amash "the chief wingnut."

He said he jokingly gave it that name because "you have the right wing and the left wing working together and trying to get things done."

"Wingnut" usually refers pejoratively to a person in politics who holds extreme, often irrational, political views, usually with a religious overtone.

The fight will now shift to the Senate, where Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. -- longtime critics of NSA dragnet collection and storage of personal records -- have promised to take up the cause.

"National security is of paramount importance, yet the NSA's dragnet collection of Americans' phone records violates innocent Americans' privacy rights and should not continue as its exists today," Udall, a member of the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Unconventional Threats, said after the vote.

"I am urging the president and the NSA to join this growing bipartisan coalition and work with Congress to focus the NSA's surveillance efforts on terrorists and spies -- not innocent Americans."

The White House has said Obama would veto any proposal to limit NSA surveillance.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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