In a vote that split both parties, the House on Wednesday failed to pass an amendment to a Defense Appropriations bill that would have restricted the National Security Agency’s current practice of indiscriminately collecting and storing call metadata for all Americans using cell phones.
A majority of Democrats joined with 94 Republicans to vote in favor of the amendment, sponsored by Representative Justin Amash (R-Michigan), which was defeated 217-205. The leadership of both parties and the Obama administration opposed the amendment, saying that dismantling the program in one stroke could negatively affect national security.
According to leaks from former NSA employee Edrward Snowden and subsequent revelations, the NSA has been using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to legitimize a blanket monitoring operation, potentially collecting information on every cell phone call that Americans have made over the past seven years.
The Obama administration recently argued in court that the dragnet metadata collection is not a breach of the U.S. Constitution and that individual Americans do not have standing to challenge the practice by suing the government.
“In light of the information disclosed about NSA surveillance programs, I believe we must limit the government’s authority to collect data on American phone calls,” said Rep. Mike Michaud by email. “I strongly support allowing critical national security investigations to take place, but not at the expense of our privacy.”
“A lot of members of Congress who supported the Patriot Act—including the author of the Patriot Act—voted for this amendment because they never expected the law to be used the way it has been to, effectively, circumvent the Fourth Amendment,” said Rep. Chellie Pingree. “It is important for the government to have the ability to investigate and prevent terrorist attacks, but we also have to respect the Constitution.”
No similar vote has been held in the Senate. Maine Senator Angus King, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has been mildly critical of the program.
“I will also be asking tough questions about provisions included in the USA PATRIOT Act, especially including questions about whether the data necessary to protect us can be collected in a focused manner,” said King in a June statement. “I will not vote to extend those provisions unless I am satisfied that procedures are in place to protect the rights of Americans.”
Senator Susan Collins, on the other hand, has defended the program, although she acknowledges that she wasn’t made aware of its provisions until after the leaks, despite being ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee during the last Congress.
“We should not assume a trade-off between liberty and security,” said Collins to a meeting of the Maine World Affairs Council last month. “Security ensures our freedom.”
The vote in favor of ending the surveillance, while not reaching majority support, is heartening for the network of groups and individuals who have begun to come together to support personal privacy and oppose dragnet monitoring of the American public without specific suspicion.
The coalition engaged in heavy grassroots lobbying on the amendment and in the end nearly overcame the combined political advocacy of the President and the congressional leadership of both parties.