Our View

Congress deeply split on snooping

By From page A4 | July 31, 2013

The issue: The battle over unlimited NSA eavesdropping isn’t over

Pre-Sept. 11, most Americans would have been horrified to learn that their government was vacuuming up and filing away their phone records — who they called and how long they talked — and listening in on those phone calls that caught the spy agency’s attention.

IT IS SAFE to say that opposition to government eavesdropping unconnected to law enforcement and specific threats to national security was widespread and that many of those opponents thought it was, in fact, unconstitutional.

As late as March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assured Congress that the National Security Agency was not gathering data on U.S. citizens even as NSA was amassing millions of domestic phone records.

Congress’ complacency was shattered, and Clapper was forced to acknowledge that he intentionally misled the lawmakers, when a very junior NSA contractor based in Hawaii — Edward Snowden — disclosed that the agency not only was collecting records of hundreds of millions of calls, but also snooping on Internet usage here and around the world.

LAST WEEK, in Congress’ first chance to vote on legislation affecting that eavesdropping since the program’s disclosure, the House showed that it has become increasingly wary about the seemingly unchecked scope of the program.

The Obama administration and the Bush administration had cited their authority as the USA Patriot Act, which has been reauthorized and broadened by both presidents. But one of the co-authors of the 2001 act, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said, “The time has come to stop it.”

Two of the strangest coalitions ever to come together in the House tangled over legislation to rein in NSA’s surveillance program.

An amendment to the defense bill by brash Republican upstart Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., 33, who regularly votes against the GOP’s establishment leadership, and Rep. John Conyers, 84, a pillar of the liberal Democratic establishment, would have barred the NSA from collecting the phone records of individuals who are not under investigation.

They were backed by an assortment of libertarians, anti-big government tea partiers and liberal Democrats. They were opposed by President Barack Obama; House Speaker John Boehner, who usually doesn’t vote; Democratic former Speaker Nancy Pelosi; and the national intelligence establishment.

THE FINAL VOTE to save the program, 217 to 205, reflected Congress’ deep ambivalence over it. Opposing the program were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats; favoring it were 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats.

Amash vows the battle isn’t over, and he may be right. Congress may get a second crack at it if Obama carries through with a threat to veto the entire $598.3 billion defense bill over issues unrelated to the eavesdropping.

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