An amendment to prohibit intelligence agencies from performing bulk collection of records such as telephone metadata was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives yesterday by a vote of 205-217.
Although the amendment by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) was not adopted, its near-passage on a bipartisan basis signaled an extraordinary loss of congressional support for the national security establishment and for the bulk collection of records revealed by Edward Snowden in particular. It is doubtful that any intelligence program can continue for long with 49% of House members opposed to it.
The House debate had a certain theatrical quality because it reflected divergent value judgments more than opposing factual claims.
For proponents of the intelligence program, which is conducted under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, it is a lawful and constitutional effort. In itself, they insist, the collection of telephone records by the government no more involves “spying” on Americans than does the collection of such records by the telephone company– which is to say, not at all. And the program has been justified, they say, by its success in detecting and preventing terrorist attacks.
To opponents of the program, however, intelligence collection of records concerning private persons who are not suspected of any crime is an impermissible infringement on the Fourth Amendment. Opponents also disbelieve that the program has contributed significantly to combating terrorism, or else they would implicitly forego any additional margin of security that it provides. Moreover, they say, the bulk collection of records deviates from the language and the intent of the law.
Even in victory, supporters of the current program do not believe the matter is settled. Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a principal defender of the existing program, said he would consider further proposals to mitigate privacy concerns.
“I will pledge to each one of you today and give you my word that this fall, when we do the Intel authorization bill, that we will work to find additional privacy protections with this program,” he said.