RSS
The failed Amash amendment and the shifting politics of national security
The House narrowly voted down a measure that would have curbed the NSA's phone-data gathering. The spooks may not be so lucky next time.
A protester demonstrates on July 20 against the NSA outside Germany's "Dagger Complex," which is used by the U.S. Army intelligence services.
A protester demonstrates on July 20 against the NSA outside Germany's "Dagger Complex," which is used by the U.S. Army intelligence services. REUTERS/ Kai Pfaffenbach
O

n Wednesday night, we were reminded once again that national security politics makes for really strange bedfellows. After a lively debate, the House narrowly defeated an amendment to a defense spending bill that would have curbed the National Security Agency's authority to indiscriminately collect Americans' telephone metadata.

The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), split the House along unusual ideological lines. "The strongest backers of the measure were an oil-and-water mix of deeply conservative Tea Party Republicans and some of the chamber's most liberal Democrats," say Ken Dilanian and Michael A. Memoli in the Los Angeles Times.

Ninety-four Republicans and 111 Democrats voted for the Amash amendment, and 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted it down. (The final vote was 217 against and 205 in favor.) House leaders from both parties and almost the entire House Intelligence Committee voted against it. The amendment would have restricted the NSA by only allowing it to collect phone metadata — the phone numbers, date, time, and durations of calls — from people it identifies as under investigation.

Wednesday night's vote "was the first real test of political sentiment since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents that revealed the secret program," says David Rogers at Politico. And for the intelligence community and its supporters in Congress, "the narrowness of the vote was a jolting reminder of the emotions stirred by the issue."

The politics here are very odd. The White House lobbied hard against the measure, as did Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander — both intelligence chiefs met with lawmakers on Tuesday to argue against stripping the NSA of what they called a crucial counter-terrorism tool. Siding with President Obama were not just House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), but also Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who made an impassioned plea on the House floor for her colleagues to reject the amendment.

It's pretty easy to see why the amendment almost passed, though. Among the strongly held beliefs about personal privacy in the House, "polls showed the idea — depending on how you describe it — playing incredibly well," says David Weigel at Slate. "Members of Congress read polls."

In a new Washington Post/ABC News survey, 74 percent of respondents say the NSA's surveillance efforts infringe on some Americans' privacy rights, and 49 percent believe the data-snooping violates their own privacy. Only 42 percent of respondents say they believe the NSA's surveillance regime is making America safer from terrorists, while 47 percent say it's not making much of a difference.

Overall, by a 57-39 percent margin, the poll found that Americans think it is more important for the government to investigate terrorist threats than to protect privacy — the narrowest margin since 2002.

It's a good thing this motley coalition of "anti-antiterror liberals" and "Republicans for Snowden" didn't succeed in kneecapping the NSA, says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial siding with, yes, the Obama administration.

Searching through metadata amounts to searching the haystack to find a needle. But under Mr. Amash's amendment, the NSA could only gather metadata if it has already found the needle. This would greatly complicate the job of preventing future terrorist attacks, because metadata can link a known suspect to a terrorist or terror cell that U.S. officials weren't aware of....

By all means Congress should debate the NSA programs now that they are public, but any new limits ought to be carefully vetted for their potential consequences. The last thing Congress should do is kill a program in a rush to honor the reckless claims of Mr. Snowden and his apologists. [Wall Street Journal]

The Amash amendment may have failed this time, but the tide is turning against the NSA and its "egregious overreach," says the ACLU's Alexander Abdo in The Guardian, siding with a conservative Republican congressman. Congress needs to curb the NSA, or tacitly allow the spy agency's "radical view of the Constitution" to "fundamentally transform the relationship between citizen and government," Abdo says.

Even if the NSA isn't reading our every email or listening to our every call, knowing that an analyst might one day pull up our emails or web-browsing history for further scrutiny is chilling. Dissent and debate are stifled by the simple knowledge that our activities and communications are being recorded and archived.

But perhaps the most fundamental problem with the NSA's constitutional theory is that it has no limit. If the constitution is blind to the collection of our data and limits only the NSA's later uses of it, then the NSA truly can "collect it all" now and ask questions later. Our emails, phone calls and internet activities would all be very simple for the NSA to collect under the NSA's theory. But it could go much further. It could put video cameras on every street corner, it could install microphones in every home and it could even remotely copy the contents of every computer hard drive. [Guardian]

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week