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House Rejects Measure That Would Have Curbed NSA Program


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

On Capitol Hill, an effort to limit the authority of the National Security Agency has fallen short. It was the first chance for House lawmakers to vote on the government's phone surveillance program since news of it was leaked by Edward Snowden. They rejected an amendment that the White House and top intelligence officials had lobbied hard against.

NPR's Tamara Keith joins us from Capitol Hill. And, Tamara, the amendment was defeated. How close was it?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was actually surprisingly close. It failed by about a dozen votes. And it was really, truly bipartisan, one of the more bipartisan things that the House has done in a long time, both in those voting for it and voting against it. And I'll also say that the underlying bill, the defense spending bill, that has passed.

SIEGEL: Well, let's consider this amendment then that was defeated. What would it have done? What did it actually say?

KEITH: So the NSA currently collects data about Americans' phone calls in bulk. This amendment would've limited it to just people who are actually under investigation. Michigan Republican Justin Amash is the lead author of the amendment.

REPRESENTATIVE JUSTIN AMASH: The government collects the phone records without suspicion of every single American in the United States. My amendment makes a simple but important change. It limits the government's collection of those records - of the records, to those records that pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation.

SIEGEL: Now, Tamara, Congressman Amash, whom we just heard there, is a conservative Republican, but this (unintelligible) some very unusual alliances. Some of his co-authors are liberal Democrats.

KEITH: Indeed, they are. It's said the whole thing about the political spectrum on the left and the right, they sort of come together at times. Raul Labrador is a - also a conservative Republican from Idaho, and he was speaking at an event called Conversations with Conservatives. And this is how he described this alliance.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: I call it jokingly the wing nut coalition, where you have the right wing and the left wing working together and trying to get things done.

KEITH: Now, in this case, they didn't quite get it done, but they certainly did send a message that there are a lot of people concerned about this.

SIEGEL: So, some strange bedfellows in support of this amendment, who formed the opposition to it?

KEITH: Oh, similarly strange bedfellows. You had the Heritage Foundation, the president and the White House, and Michele Bachmann and John Boehner, people who often don't get along, all united in opposition. And they made an argument that this amendment would undermine national security. Tom Cotton is an Arkansas Republican who spoke against the amendment on the House floor.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COTTON: It does not limit the program, it does not modify it, it does not constrain the program. It ends the program. It blows it up. Some of you've heard the analogy that if you want to have - search for a needle in a haystack, you have to have the haystack. This takes a leaf blower and blows away the entire haystack.

SIEGEL: Well, they prevailed. What does that say about what was accomplished by the sponsors of this amendment to cut NSA funding? Was anything accomplished by them? Is there some next step that they take?

KEITH: Well, 205 members of Congress, a bipartisan group, voted to say that they have concerns about this NSA program. And those concerns, no doubt, have been heard. They sent the head of the NSA up to answer questions yesterday and presumably lobby against the measure. And also, this large bipartisan coalition formed with outside groups, all different groups that you wouldn't expect to come together, and those groups intend to keep working on this issue. And next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to hold a hearing about oversight of the surveillance program. So the conversation continues here on Capitol Hill.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Tamara Keith on Capitol Hill. Thank you, Tamara.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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