White House urges Congress to reject moves to curb NSA surveillance
Obama administration alarmed by vote on ‘Amash amendment’ aimed at blocking blanket surveillance of phone records
The Obama administration has forcefully urged the defeat of a legislative measure to curb its wide-ranging collection of Americans‘ phone records, setting up a showdown with the House of Representatives over domestic surveillance.
A statement from the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, late on Tuesday evening capped an extraordinary day of near-revolt on Capitol Hill concerning the secret National Security Agency surveillance programes revealed by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian and Washington Post.
The White House urged House members to vote against a measure from Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, that would stop the NSA siphoning up the telephone records of millions of Americans without suspicion of a crime.
“This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process,” said the statement emailed from the White House late on Tuesday in anticipation of a House debate on the Amash measure scheduled for Wednesday.
“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.”
In a reflection of how seriously the Obama administration is taking Amash’s amendment to the defence department’s annual appropriations bill – which unexpectedly cleared the House rules committee late on Monday – the NSA’s director, General Keith Alexander, spent four hours on Capitol Hill on Tuesday in closed-door meetings Amash described to the Guardian as a “general informational briefing”.
Hours after Alexander’s bull sessions with legislators, two of his main congressional allies, Representatives Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House intelligence committee, also urged colleagues to vote down Amash’s amendment.
“While many members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans’ civil liberties, eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty under article 1 of the constitution to provide for the common defence,” Rogers and Ruppersberger wrote in an open letter to their colleagues on Tuesday, warning Amash’s effort would have “unintended consequences for the intelligence and law enforcement communities beyond the metadata program”.
It is relatively rare for the White House to voice its perspective on a legislative manoeuvre ahead of its adoption by a chamber of congress. Amash’s measure – one of several amendments to the defence department funding bill — is scheduled for debate on Wednesday and for a vote as early as Wednesday night or Thursday morning. A vote to include it in the bill would not be the end of congressional debate over the bulk collection of phone records.
“It’s been an extraordinary day on Capitol Hill as insiders scramble to block the growing chorus of support for the Amash anti-surveillance amendment,” said David Segal, the executive director of the progressive organisation Demand Progress, which supports Amash’s amendment.
“It’s appropriate: Just as the NSA’s domestic spying apparatus is evidence of some of our leaders’ fear of the American people, these extraordinary actions by the White House and the NSA evidence their fear that the will of Americans will be codified in the law tomorrow.
“They’ve been brought to this point because in the last 24 hours tens of thousands of Americans, organised by a broad coalition of progressive and conservative organisations – along with several web platforms – have called Congress to make it known that they will not stand for broad based domestic spying by our own government.”
Earlier on Tuesday, one of the leading legislative critics of the NSA’s bulk surveillance on Americans’ phone records, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, attacked both the surveillance and what he described as a “culture of misinformation” by administration and intelligence officials about it.
Wyden, who predicted two weeks ago that the administration might be open to changing the bulk phone-records programme, suggested during a speech at the Centre for American Progress that intelligence officials would fight an effort to restrict a growing series of post-9/11 surveillance powers.
“As we have seen in recent days, the intelligence leadership is determined to hold on to this authority,” Wyden said. “Merging the ability to conduct surveillance that reveals every aspect of a person’s life with the ability to conjure up the legal authority to execute that surveillance, and finally, removing any accountable judicial oversight, creates the opportunity for unprecedented influence over our system of government.”
Wyden termed that effort a threat that “chips needlessly away at the liberties and freedoms our founders established for us, without the benefit of actually making us any safer”.
The White House – which did not release much information about the secret bulk surveillance efforts it has maintained after inheriting the regime from the Bush administration – portrayed itself on Tuesday as open to a continuing dialogue about the proper limits of surveillance. It framed Amash’s amendment as rashly ending the bulk surveillance of phone records, while the administration was committed thoughtfully reforming it, although it has yet to publicly announce any reforms.
“In light of the recent unauthorised disclosures the president has said that he welcomes a debate about how best to simultaneously safeguard both our national security and the privacy of our citizens,” said the statement attributed to Carney.
“We look forward to continuing to discuss these critical issues with the American people and the Congress.”
Wyden noted during his speech at the administration-aligned thinktank that he thought the administration had agreed with him when it first came to office about the problems of maintaining widespread secrecy over surveillance.
“In the summer of 2009 I received a written commitment from the justice department and the office of the director of national intelligence that a process would be created to start redacting and declassifying Fisa court opinions so that the American people could have some idea of what the government believes the law allows it to do,” Wyden said. “In the last four years exactly zero opinions have been released.”