Bloomberg News

House Rejects Restricting Spy-Agency Access to Telephone Records

July 24, 2013

U.S. lawmakers angry about domestic telephone record-collection lost an effort to curtail funding for the intelligence-gathering tools revealed by fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden.

On a vote of 205-217, the House rejected an amendment that would have limited the National Security Agency’s ability to collect communications records.

Implementation of the amendment could have created a new burden on telephone and Internet companies to retain bulk data, in addition to ending the NSA’s blanket collection of phone records. Those possibilities led the White House, Republicans leaders and many congressional Democrats to oppose the proposals, pitting them against lawmakers from both parties who champion civil liberties and privacy.

The head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, gave lawmakers a hastily scheduled briefing yesterday to make the case for leaving the program as it is.

The proposal by Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, would have prohibited intelligence agencies from collecting phone records unless a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order stipulates that the records pertain to an individual under investigation.

That would put an end to the NSA’s blanket collection of metadata on calls, such as telephone numbers and duration.

The provision would have had the potential to cause headaches for information technology companies.

Significant Burden

“It could be a significant burden depending on how the government wants us to keep this data and store it,” Trey Hodgkins, a senior vice president for TechAmerica, a Washington-based trade group that represents Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ:US), AT&T Inc. (T:US) and CenturyLink Inc. (CTL:US), said in a phone interview. “You’re talking about potentially extremely huge data sets.”

The House also adopted an amendment written by Republican Richard Nugent of Florida that sought to prohibit the NSA from using funds in the almost $600 billion Pentagon spending measure to “acquire, monitor or store the content” of electronic communications by “a United States person.”

The Nugent amendment was viewed by some lawmakers as providing political cover for those who didn’t want to vote for Amash’s amendment. While lawmakers voting for the Nugent amendment might appear to be curbing the NSA’s powers, in actuality the amendment wouldn’t change anything, simply restates current law and is “a fig leaf”, said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat.

Patriot Act

Privacy advocates like Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington, supported the amendments.

The Amash amendment would have made the government use its authority as originally intended by the Patriot Act, under which records only can be sought for particular investigations, Martin said in a phone interview.

“The fact that the House leadership allowed debate and vote on this amendment reflects the deep concern in the Congress about both the secrecy and the breadth of these authorities,” she said.

The debate in Washington has produced unusual alliances, with the White House and Republican leaders on one side. On the other were the libertarian wing of the Republican base and Democrats like Colorado’s Jared Polis and John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

“It’s a funny issue because it’s not partisan; it’s just that eternal debate between liberty and security,” said Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican.

Terrorism Investigations

The NSA has said that while it gathers information on all U.S. phone calls to have it at hand, it accesses the data only when needed for terrorism investigations. Current law states that the NSA cannot target a U.S. person without an individual warrant.

While Alexander’s remarks in the briefing weren’t made public, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper today issued a statement in opposition to the NSA amendments.

“As the House of Representatives prepares to vote today on legislation to limit the authority exercised by the National Security Agency pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and court order, I join others who caution that acting in haste to defund the FISA Business Records program risks dismantling an important intelligence tool,” Clapper said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney issued a written statement yesterday expressing opposition to Amash’s amendment.

Obama Opposition

“We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools,” he wrote. “This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process.”

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, and the head of the Armed Services Committee, Representative Buck McKeon of California, also weighed in, saying concerns about the spy programs revealed by Snowden are worthy of debate, though shouldn’t be handled as part of the Pentagon spending bills.

“Any such changes ought to proceed through a regular legislative process so the effects can be understood and debated fully,” the chairmen wrote.

Rogers said he’d revisit the issue later this year in a larger intelligence bill.

Snowden, a former security contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH:US), faces U.S. espionage charges for disclosing secret phone and Internet surveillance programs. He fled to Hong Kong and then Moscow.

After Alexander’s briefing yesterday, Amash said that while the general provided good information, “I don’t think it’s going to change people’s views on the collection of Americans’ phone records.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Timothy R. Homan in Washington at thoman1@bloomberg.net; Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo5@bloomberg.net


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