WASHINGTON -- The Obama Administration has joined with GOP leaders in a furious lobbying effort against a measure up for a vote late Wednesday in the House of Representatives that would curtail the National Security Agency's bulk collection of U.S. calling records revealed last month by Edward Snowden.
The House is expected to vote this evening on an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash, (R-Michigan), a libertarian Republican who has enlisted some liberal Democrats to his cause—that would require the government to identify a person under investigation before it is able to collect records of calls made to and from that person and his associates. Currently, the government obtains orders from a secret intelligence court requiring telecommunications providers to turn over to the NSA calling records on nearly every American.
Officials say they need all the records to be able to identify U.S. residents unknown to the intelligence community who may be working with foreign terrorists.
The Amash bill would also apply to other bulk collection of U.S. business records under the Patriot Act, though it's not clear what other records, if any, are being collected in bulk. Amash and his allies argue bulk collection violates the U.S. Constitution, with little evidence it has made Americans safer.
"When's the last time a president put out an emergency statement against an amendment?" he tweeted early Wednesday morning. "The Washington elites fear liberty. They fear you."
Amash was referring to a statement issued Wednesday night by White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said: "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."
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads the NSA, met with lawmakers Tuesday to argue against the Amash proposal. House speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)and Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), who chairs the intelligence committee, also oppose the amendment.
In a speech before the liberal Center for American Progress think tank Tuesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a member of the intelligence committee who had been warning for years that surveillance laws were being interpreted in an expansive way that would surprise most Americans, hinted that there were other large-scale surveillance programs yet to be revealed.
"There is nothing in the Patriot Act that limits this sweeping bulk collection to phone records," he said. "The government can use the Patriot Act's business records authority to collect, collate and retain all sorts of sensitive information, including medical records, financial records, or credit card purchases."
Asked whether that was happening in a Senate hearing in June, Alexander did not deny it, but instead replied, "that would be outside of NSA."
The debate comes amid evidence that most Americans are uncomfortable with what they have learned about NSA surveillance of Americans.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe the NSA programs are infringing on some privacy rights, and about half see those programs as encroaching on their own privacy., according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday. Only 42 percent say the programs make the country safer, the poll found.