The NSA's close shave

For now, let's hope that government incompetence will protect our privacy

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It isn't often that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are on the same side of a controversial issue -- and against the rank and file in both parties -- but there were strange bedfellows everywhere in the House of Representatives Wednesday.

By a vote of 205-217, the House rejected an amendment to the defense authorization bill by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., which would have removed the legal authority for the National Security Agency to collect communications "metadata" on U.S. citizens. It was the first genuinely bipartisan House vote on a controversial issue in years.

Republicans voted 134-94 against the Amash amendment, which would have amended Section 215 of the Patriot Act to permit surveillance only if the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decides that individual business records are relevant to a specific investigation. Despite strong opposition to the amendment from the White House, Democrats supported it, 111-83.

"We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community's counterterrorism tools," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process."

The NSA program the amendment would have gutted is vital to national security, said the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.

George W. Bush-era officials, including former attorneys general Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzalez, and former CIA directors Michael Hayden and Porter Goss, sent an open letter expressing "strong support" for the NSA programs targeting telephone metadata and another directed at foreign Internet communications.

"Denying the NSA such access to data will leave the nation at risk," the former Bush administration officials said, though they didn't say why.

A House GOP aide told The Washington Free Beacon website that the Amash amendment would prevent NSA from identifying a terrorist by phone number, a key tool in the fight against terrorists.

The data-collection programs have helped prevent more than 50 "potential terrorist events" in more than 20 countries since 9/11, NSA director Keith Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee. He provided no details, but FBI deputy director Sean Joyce said information gleaned from the data-mining programs helped disrupt a plot to blow up the New York Stock Exchange.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2001, isn't convinced: "I have not seen any indication that the bulk-phone-records program yielded any unique intelligence that was not also available to the government through less-intrusive means."

The massive NSA data collection programs go beyond what the Patriot Act allows, said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a co-author of the Patriot Act.

The existence of these programs was disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the British newspaper The Guardian.

One reason Americans should be concerned about these programs is their secrecy, Sen. Wyden said in a speech to a liberal think tank. "If Americans are not able to learn how their government is interpreting and executing the law, then we have effectively eliminated the most important bulwark of our democracy," he said. "Without public laws, and public court rulings interpreting those laws, it is impossible to have informed public debate."

Government officials often have lied about the surveillance it conducts. When Sen. Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, at a hearing March 12: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Mr. Clapper said no. Gen. Alexander gave a similar answer to a similar question at a House hearing the year before.

I think the surveillance state must be curbed, but the Amash amendment went too far, so, for me, narrow defeat was the optimal outcome. Rep. Rogers and the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md., pledged to work for privacy protections when the defense bill goes to conference with the Senate.

The Senate will be amenable to reform, predicted Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The closeness of the vote should be a "wake-up call" for the White House, he said.

Until then, we'll have to rely for protection of our civil liberties on bureaucratic incompetence. "Blueprints of NSA's ridiculously expensive data center in Utah suggest it holds less info than thought," Forbes reported Wednesday.

jackkelly

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).


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