House Will Hold Vote to Defund NSA Phone Records Program

None of the American newspapers I read seem to think this is worth putting on the front page, but the Guardian reports that there’s serious movement afoot to restrict the NSA’s ability to collect domestic phone records:

Congressional opposition to the NSA’s bulk surveillance on Americans swelled on Tuesday as the US House prepared to vote on restricting the collection of US phone records and a leading Senate critic blasted a “culture of misinformation” around government surveillance.

Republican congressman Justin Amash prevailed in securing a vote for his amendment to a crucial funding bill for the Department of Defense that “ends authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act.” The vote could take place as early as Wednesday evening.

….The amendment would prevent the NSA, the FBI and other agencies from relying on Section 215 of the Patriot Act “to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation under Section 215.”….Its outcome is difficult to predict. The vote by itself will not restrict the surveillance, it would simply include Amash’s amendment in the annual Defense appropriations bill, which the House is considering this week; the Senate must also approve the bill before it goes to President Obama’s desk.

Amash’s amendment allows the NSA to spend money executing a FISA court order only if the court order includes the following sentence:

This Order limits the collection of any tangible things….to those tangible things that pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation described in section 501 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that no warrant was necessary to collect phone records, and the NSA phone record program originally operated without a warrant under George Bush. However, that changed in 2006, and presumably phone companies would be unwilling to provide bulk metadata in the future without a warrant. So if this amendment passes, it would most likely put an end to the sweeping collection of domestic phone records.

It’s not clear yet whether passage is likely, or whether it would survive the Senate if it does. But this is a genuine bipartisan effort, not just a symbolic vote that’s doomed to failure. Regardless of what happens, it’s worthwhile holding this vote just to find out where everyone stands on this.