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Tuesday night, the White House blasted an amendment by Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) to limit the NSA's surveillance power to the letter of existing law. The White House rarely comments on pending amendments to legislation, and this statement came directly from Press Secretary Jay Carney, signaling how concerned the administration is.
However, we oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools. This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process. We urge the House to reject the Amash Amendment, and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.
This "blunt approach" could present the opportunity for an "informed, open, and deliberative process" that the White House could participate in if President Obama actually does want the open debate he said he welcomed after the leaks by Edward Snowden revealed how far beyond existing law the NSA surveillance programs have veered. It's the closest we have yet come to a deliberative process on the issue since it was debated before it was allowed and will be debated again late Wednesday or Thursday when it's offered on the floor.
This amendment would restrict the NSA to collecting data that is specifically and expressly allowed under Section 215 of the Patriot Act as written, not as secretly interpreted by the FISA court. It does not restrict the agency's ability to collect foreign intelligence, but requires a court order for any collection of records of Americans, and requires that the collection be directly related to an existing investigation. As Congress intended when it passed the law.
There's little chance of this amendment actually becoming law. The NSA's Keith Alexander had a full-court press against it yesterday, offering "top secret" lobbying to members. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss issued a statement against it yesterday, so it won't be finding its way into a Senate bill. If it did, President Obama would veto it.
But if it were to pass in the House it might finally force the real discussion and debate over civil liberties and national Security President Obama says he welcomes. If the House, on a bipartisan basis, demanded by adopting this amendment that the NSA follow the letter of the law, that debate would have to start.
4:04 PM PT: The Amash amendment was defeated, but it was close. 205-217. With all the heavy lifting from the White House, the NSA, and House leadership on both side of the aisle against it, there's good hope that we can have a real discussion about civil liberties and security in coming weeks. Particularly because of this:
Rep. Sensenbrenner, who WROTE the Patriot Act, says law is being abused by the NSA and strongly supports the Amash amendment.