Top intelligence officials from the Obama and Bush administrations, along with senior House lawmakers from both parties, succeeded Wednesday in heading off the first legislative challenge to the domestic snooping program exposed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
Arrayed against them was an equally odd cross-section of the political spectrum. Tea party libertarian Republicans and Democratic civil rights advocates — generally at odds — were united behind an amendment to a must-pass defense spending bill that would defund the National Security Agency’s mass collection of Americans’ phone records.
The amendment was defeated in a 217-205 vote.
Fueled by a wave of online support from privacy and transparency advocates, and the inevitable trending terms on social media, the move to require individualized suspicion before any American’s phone records can be collected drew the first presidential veto threat based solely on a House amendment since 2005, according to the measure’s sponsors.
The NSA amendment, the last of 100 considered during eight hours of debate Tuesday and Wednesday, is intended “to defend the Fourth Amendment, to defend the privacy of each and every American,” said Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican.
There was only one question members ought to ask themselves, said Mr. Amash, one of the measure’s sponsors, “Do we approve the suspicionless collection of every American’s phone records?”
Other sponsors of the amendment, which was cleared for debate Monday by the House Committee on Rules, were Democratic Reps. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Jared Polis of Colorado; and Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican.
Mr. Snowden provided to the news media last month top secret NSA documents showing that the agency is collecting data about every telephone call made in the U.S. through its use of the so-called business records provision, Section 215, of the Patriot Act — that huge suite of counterterrorism laws quickly passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and a veteran member of the House Committee on the Judiciary, said he supported the amendment. One the Patriot Act’s authors, Mr. Sensenbrenner said the law was never intended to allow large-scale collection of Americans’ phone records.
“This amendment will not stop the proper use of the Patriot Act in counterterrorism investigations,” Mr. Conyers said. “It will stop the ongoing dragnet collection of records.”
Nonetheless, top administration intelligence officials, along with their Republican predecessors and senior members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from both sides of the aisle, warned that the amendment would cripple the agency’s counterterrorism surveillance abilities.
Not content with Tuesday night’s veto threat, the White House sent NSA Director Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers in a top-secret environment.
“Acting in haste to defund the FISA Business Records program risks dismantling an important intelligence tool,” Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper cautioned in a statement Wednesday.
It wasn’t just the Obama administration that was pulling out the stops to ensure the amendment’s failure. Officials from the George W. Bush administration, some not famed for their bipartisan support for Mr. Obama, also stepped up to the plate.
“We are convinced [the program is] vitally important to our national security [and has] been instrumental in helping to prevent attacks on the United States and its allies,” reads an open letter signed by former Attorneys General Michael B. Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, former Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, former CIA directors Michael V. Hayden and Porter J. Goss, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley.
By voice vote, the House passed one amendment to cut off all U.S. military aid to Egypt, and another to spike Mr. Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels in their war against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, called the administration’s plan “absolute madness,” accusing the president of supporting “an Islamic jihad” consisting “mostly of al Qaeda members that we’ve spent a decade trying to kill.”
The bill, if the House passes it, will have to be reconciled with its Senate counterpart in a conference committee. In previous years’ defense bills, controversial or difficult provisions, perhaps especially those passed only by voice vote, have shown a tendency to disappear at that stage.
Meanwhile, Mr. Snowden remained trapped Wednesday in the international transit lounge at Moscow’s airport, his attorney said, as U.S. officials lobbied their Russian counterparts against granting asylum to the self-proclaimed whistleblower.
“The asylum matter has not yet been resolved,” attorney Anatoly Kucherena told reporters at the airport in remarks broadcast and translated by the BBC. “You have to take our bureaucracy into account.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “Any move that would allow Mr. Snowden to depart the airport would be deeply disappointing.”
She said Secretary of State John F. Kerry had spoken by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to reinforce U.S. requests that Russia return Mr. Snowden to the U.S., where he has been indicted on espionage charges.