WASHINGTON — A controversial proposal to restrict how the National Security Agency collects Americans’ telephone records failed to advance in the House by a narrow margin Wednesday, a victory for the Obama administration, which has spent weeks defending the program.
Lawmakers voted 217 to 205 to defeat the proposal from an unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative members. Those lawmakers had joined forces in response to revelations by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, that the agency has collected the phone records of millions of Americans, a practice that critics say goes beyond the kind of collection that has been authorized by Congress.
The plan, sponsored by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and John Conyers, D-Mich., would have restricted the collection of the records, known as metadata, only when there was a connection to relevant ongoing investigations.
It also would have required that secret opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court be made available to lawmakers and that the court publish summaries of each opinion for public review.
Conyers said the proposal “would curtail the ongoing dragnet collection and storage of the personal records of innocent Americans.”
There was little indication that a similar measure would have momentum in the Senate, and the Obama administration made clear that it would veto any such proposal. But the ability of Amash and Conyers to bring the measure to the House floor as an amendment to a Defense Department appropriations bill — and their ability to get more than 200 votes in their favor — was a testament to lawmakers’ growing concerns over the NSA’s bulk collection of data.
Backing the NSA program were 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who typically does not vote, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Rejecting the administration’s last-minute pleas to spare the surveillance operation were 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats.
U.S. officials have defended the collection and emphasized that intelligence analysts are not reviewing the “contents” of the calls or listening to Americans’ conversations. The data include the phone numbers called by Americans and the length of the calls.
Before the vote, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, issued a statement saying that supporting the proposal “risks dismantling an important intelligence tool.”
His comments came after Gen. Keith Alexander, the director of NSA and head of U.S. Cyber Command, spent four hours Tuesday on Capitol Hill speaking with lawmakers. White House officials had also called the amendment an attempt to “hastily dismantle” counterterrorism tools and “not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a key supporter of NSA surveillance programs, also rejected the proposal Wednesday, saying that Amash was trying “to take advantage at any rate of people’s anger” over a series of other controversies in Washington.
“What they’re talking about doing is turning off a program that after 9/11 we realized we missed — we the intelligence community — missed a huge clue,” Rogers said.
Still, Amash said that his proposal enjoyed broad, bipartisan support because voters are strongly opposed to the NSA program.
“When you go back to your district, you hear it from Republicans and Democrats,” Amash said at a recent public meeting of some of the most outspoken conservative House Republicans. Of the nine lawmakers who attended the meeting, eight said they planned to support the proposal.
Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said he would vote for the proposal and credited Democrats and Republicans for working together on the issue. “I call it jokingly the Wing Nut Coalition,” he said, “where you have the right wing and the left wing working together and trying to get things done.”
“Justin is the chief Wing Nut,” Labrador said about Amash.
But other Republicans joined with Rogers in suggesting that the amendment would jeopardize counterterrorism operations.
Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., an Army veteran who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the amendment “takes a leaf blower and blows away the entire haystack.”
And Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told her colleagues that she opposed the amendment because telephone records are not considered private property. She also blasted Snowden for disclosing sensitive information to the news media, saying, “This was not an act of a patriot; this was an act of a traitor.”
The House approved the defense appropriations bill 315-109 shortly after defeating the amendment. The bill goes on to the Senate, where it is expected to be debated after the August recess.