This week could represent a major turning point in the battle between the National Security Agency and Americans' privacy. On Wednesday, the House will begin consideration of an amendment, proposed by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), that would cut government funding for the NSA's no-longer-secret telephone surveillance programs and impose limitations on the kind of metadata that the NSA can gather.
The House Rules Committee voted late on Monday to allow the Amash amendment to be considered as part of a gargantuan $598.3 billion defense appropriations bill. A grateful Rep. Amash took to Twitter to thank House leaders for their assistance.
According to the Rules Committee's website, the NSA budget amendment would "[end] authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act" and "[bar] the NSA and other agencies from using 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."
The amendment enjoys support on both sides of the aisle. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s something that cuts across the entire political spectrum,” Amash told the Rules panel, reports Politico. Supporters of the measure have created a website, titled Defund the NSA, that seeks to spread the word about the amendment.
Already, advocates of NSA surveillance have sprung into action in an effort to stop the potential budget cuts. On Tuesday, Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, made an "urgent visit" to Capitol Hill to meet privately with legislators, presumably to voice concerns about the Amash amendment.
Meanwhile, Steven G. Bradbury, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling Amash's legislation "ill-considered" and warning that it could "compromise our ability to protect the United States against the next 9/11."
"Many libertarians are quick to condemn the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata as an example of government overreach and encroachment into Americans’ private freedom. But protecting the United States from foreign attack is the core mission of the federal government, and a catastrophic failure in that mission could threaten the liberties we all cherish."
Once again, federal fearmongerers are waving the 9/11 tragedy in the face of Americans in a tired attempt to convince us that Big Brother knows best. What's more, in the grand scheme of things, the Amash amendment doesn't represent that much of a limitation on the NSA's power.
“In order for funds to be used by the NSA, the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] order would have to have a statement limiting the collection of records to those records that pertain to a person under investigation,” Amash told the Rules Committee. “If the court order doesn’t have that statement, the NSA doesn’t receive the funding to collect those records.”
Far from placing a ball and chain on the NSA, the proposed legislation only restricts the NSA's data-gathering to individuals who merit surveillance in the first place.
Still, pro-surveillance politicians will do anything to prevent even this basic check on the collection of quadrillions (1,000,000,000,000,000) of gigabytes of telephone records and personal data. Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.), the manager of the House's defense appropriations bill, argued that details of the NSA's activities were too sensitive to discuss openly.
“If I have to respond to some of the amendments that I have seen in an open session, it’s not a fair fight,” Young said, contending that secrecy rules would prevent him from addressing critics. “The only argument that my wife and I have ever have is she wants to know what I know and I tell her, ‘I can’t tell you what I know.’”
It's a sad day when the executive branch can't trust Congress to discuss national security issues, and instead treats legislators like liabilities. The government can't play its cards close to its chest but still expect Americans to show their hands.
What NSA supporters don't understand is that communication is key and secrets are divisive. I can't speak for Rep. Young's wife, but I know that if the U.S. government continues to demand such an unequal partnership with its citizens, it won't be long before divorce papers are served — perhaps by a little-known representative from Michigan.
Gabe Grand is an editorialist for PolicyMic.