Today's Vote on NSA Spying Is Vital, Whether It Succeeds or Not

Rep. Justin Amash, the amendment's sponsor. (Gage Skidmore)

Do you know what your Congressional representative thinks about NSA spying?

You're about to find out.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote as soon as today on an amendment that would block the NSA's ability to collect records about every phone call made in the U.S. -- a significant, potentially history-altering effort to rein in the surveillance state built in secret by the executive branch. Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, is the congressman pushing the effort, which would be considered as part of a larger bill by the Senate if it passes. He says he is optimistic.

The Obama Administration has urged Congress to scrap the amendment, releasing a statement that may be the least self-aware thing I've seen this year: "This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process," the White House stated, referring to a public vote on the House floor that would help end a secret policy approved by a secret court.

Team Obama really has no shame. Charlie Savage of The New York Times quotes Senator Ron Wyden by way of rebuttal:

... he blasted national security officials in the Obama administration, saying they have "actively" misled the American public about domestic surveillance. "As we have seen in recent days, the intelligence leadership is determined to hold on to this authority," Mr. 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."

...he suggested that the bulk collection of all domestic phone records is not the only such effort, saying Mr. Snowden's disclosures meant the public was finally able to see "some" of what Mr. Wyden has been raising alarms about, and that the same legal theory has been deemed to authorize "secret surveillance programs" -- plural -- "that I and colleagues think go far beyond the intent of the statute." He did not explain what else was based on that legal interpretation, but complained that his hands were tied by classification rules. The Obama administration conducted an e-mail data collection program on the same scale as the phone program, but officials said it was ended in 2011. Mr. Wyden said that the government's theory of its power under the Patriot Act to collect records about people from third parties is "essentially limitless," saying it could use that authority to gather in bulk medical, financial, credit card and gun-ownership records or lists of "readers of books and magazines deemed subversive." He also dwelled on the potential for cellphones to serve as secret monitoring devices, saying everyone is carrying a "combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker and hidden camera."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial page hosts former Justice Department lawyer Steven Bradbury defending the NSA program.

Why does this vote matter so much?

Whether it fails or succeeds, America will have every member of the House on record either supporting or opposing the surveillance state's collection of customer data on all phone calls.

These are people who stand for election every two years. If there was ever a litmus test for a legislator, this should be it. Vote to let the NSA persist in exercising this authority? Face a primary challenger who will go door-to-door in your district explaining exactly what you recently approved.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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