Posted by on July 24, 2013 in Blog

The House of Representatives is currently debating the annual appropriations bill for the Department of Defense. Members are generally given the opportunity to propose an unlimited number of amendments to spending bills, but House Republican leaders in fear that the bill would get stuck on controversial amendments slowing down the bill, permitted a total of five amendments on the NSA, Syria, and Egypt.

The House Rules Committee ruled Monday evening that Congressman Justin Amash’s (R-MI) amendment was in order and will get a vote. Shortly thereafter, NSA Director Keith Alexander called an emergency meeting yesterday with lawmakers in response to the amendment. “In advance of the anticipated action on amendments to the DoD appropriations bill, Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee invites your Member to attend a question and answer session with General Keith B. Alexander of the National Security Agency,” reads the invitation. Additionally, Mike Rogers (R-MI), Chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence along with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, Armed Services, Judiciary, and Appropriations Committees sent a letter yesterday to all Members in the House explaining their opposition to the Amash amendment. The White House has also spoken publicly about its opposition to the Amash amendment. In response, on his Facebook page, Amash blasts the Administration:“U.S. government has come out in full force against you, the American people. I will always stand with you and the Constitution I swore to support and defend.”  

The Amash amendment co-authored by John Conyers (D-MI), Ranking Member on the House Judiciary Committee, will end the NSA’s blanket collection of Americans' telephone records. It does so by requiring the FISA court under Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation. Amash’s amendment does not terminate all NSA surveillance activities but takes a very important step in saying that this particular authority can only be used to collect information on those who are actually the subject of an investigation. It will prevent surveillance of innocent Americans while also allowing the government to use this authority in a more common sense and targeted manner. The measures the government would need to take to collect records under the Amash-Conyers amendment are to provide facts to the FISA court to show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that records sought “1) are relevant to an appropriately authorized national security investigation and 2) pertain to the person (including any group or corporation) under investigation,” writes Amash in a letter to colleagues early Wednesday morning. “NSA can continue to collect telephone metadata without a warrant and without probable cause that a crime or other statutory violation has been committed. The amendment simply requires that there be a reasonable connection between the documents sought and the person under investigation,” writes Amash. Under the amendment, the government would retain its authority to collect specific records under Section 215 but the bulk collection of telephone records would end.    

Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the FBI to order any person or entity to turn over "any tangible things," so long as the FBI "specif[ies]" that the order is "for an authorized protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." Section 215 greatly expands the FBI's power to spy on ordinary Americans living in the US and violates the Fourth Amendment by allowing the government to effect Fourth Amendment searches without a warrant or showing probable cause. The provision also violates the Fifth Amendment by failing to require that those who are the subject of Section 215 orders be told that their privacy has been compromised.   

Congressman Amash has been a vocal critic of the NSA's broad-based surveillance programs and introduced the LIBERT-E Act last month which currently has 46 cosponsors, and would prevent the "mass collection of records of innocent Americans under section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, as amended by section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and to provide for greater accountability and transparency in the implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978." There’s another NSA amendment for consideration authored by Rep. Nugent (R-FL), which is a red herring amendment that only serves to reinforce current law and its excesses. Nugent’s amendment does not address the bulk, suspicionless collection of telephone records of Americans and does not change the Administration’s current policy. 

Congressman Amash has championed civil liberties issues in the House and should be applauded for his efforts amidst opposition to advance this issue by many in his own party. While the Amash-Conyers amendment is a common sense amendment that opposes suspicionless surveillance of Americans, it faces strong opposition in the House. And while several of Mr. Amash's colleagues will ultimately oppose his amendment, he has the support of Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the author of the Patriot Act. Several organizations, representing right, left, and centrist politics have also announced their support for this amendment, including AAI.

“Congress has provided the intelligence community with extraordinary powers to combat terrorism and counter espionage. We must require those powers to be focused on those who actually seek to do us harm. We do not need to live in a surveillance state in order to be safe,” Conyers and Amash wrote in a statement to colleagues earlier today. I couldn’t agree more.  

Update, 7/24 at 6:50pm: The Amash-Conyers amendment was defeated 205-217.  

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