Although the proposal gathered only 205 "yea" votes to 217 "nays," many expressed surprise that an amendment of this type even made it to the floor and got more than a handful of votes.
In the clearest sign of growing public anger over President Barack Obama’s nod to expanding surveillance activities the House of Representatives came unprecedentedly close to passing a bill aimed at defunding the U.S. National Security Agency’s covert collection of Americans’ telephone records.
Defeated by a razor-thin margin of 12 votes the first serious legislative challenge to the administration’s domestic spying infrastructure emerged from a bipartisan effort by Michigan Republican Justin Amash and a 24-term senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers.
Although the proposal gathered only 205 “yea” votes to 217 “nays,” many expressed surprise that an amendment of this type, “which directly challenge the Surveillance and National Security States,” even made it to the floor and got more than a handful of votes, a fact that could be put down to the ground-shaking revelations on the NSA’s automated mass surveillance programmes exposed in the media by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
In addition to supplying information on the NSA’s large-scale snooping on user communications via major Internet firms such as Google, Apple and Facebook, Mr. Snowden, who is presently awaiting political asylum from U.S. persecution in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, last month gave the Guardian newspaper documents suggesting that the NSA was also monitoring telephone “meta-data,” or call information, of millions of unsuspecting customers of telecom giant Verizon.
The exposés based on the information provided by Mr. Snowden’s suggested that the shadowy Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court had passed an April 25 order to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that gave the government “unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.”
Last week the Court renewed the “blanket order,” under which the numbers of both parties to a telephone conversation are handed over to the NSA along with location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time of the call.
While intelligence officials defended the programme after the Snowden revelations, saying that they did not access the actual content of conversations by American citizens, this week the Amash-Conyers amendment sought to defund the NSA’s bulk collection of the telephone records “by requiring the FISA Court under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] to order the production of records that pertain only to a person under investigation.”
The ultimate failure of the bill on the floor of the House however also revealed unusual alliances formed across party lines to protect the U.S. government’s spying capabilities. Most notably, conservative Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann took up the rallying cry of the White House and other senior Democrats, that the perceived compromise of civil liberties was essential to prevent future terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Similarly House Speaker Republican John Boehner “found himself in the rare position of being on the same side as President Obama.”