In what’s being billed as a momentum boost for anti-surveillance advocates, the US House of Representative on Thursday approved an amendment that significantly reigns in warrantless searches on Americans’ communication records.
By a vote of 293 to 123, a bipartisan coalition in the House voted to ban the National Security Agency from conducting “backdoor searches” on United States citizens, a process that allowed the intelligence community to collect data on Americans without a warrant as long as the official target was a foreigner. The program was first revealed by the Guardian, through documents leaked by Edward Snowden.
The NSA has argued that when a US citizen engages in communication with a foreigner it has targeted for surveillance, the spy agency can legitimately store the data – email, phone, and text conversations – in a database and search through it at any time for information on US citizens. The House vote comes amid rising concerns over the potential for the NSA to continue expanding its collection of data on Americans.
According to the Huffington Post, the amendment “specifically prohibits the NSA from using information identifying U.S. citizens to search communications data it collects under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.”
Additionally, the House voted to ban the NSA from installing backdoor search capability into the hardware and software of other companies, which has allowed the agency to gain easy access to customer communications data.
"I think people are waking up to what's been going on," amendment's sponsor, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), told the Post. "Whether you're Republican or Democrat -- because, if you noticed, a majority of Republicans voted for this, as well as a majority of Democrats."
The action by the House also comes in the wake of a previous vote that authorized the USA Freedom Act, which aimed to block the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata but was significantly watered down after negotiations with the White House and the intelligence community. Loopholes were put in place to allow continued surveillance and, as RT reported in May, other provisions were removed that forced civil liberties advocates to drop their support for the bill.
The most recent amendment reinstated the provisions that were cut out previously and, as a result, earned the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, Google, and others.
“Tonight's overwhelming vote to rein in the NSA's backdoor access to Americans' data signals widespread discontent amongst House members over how the USA Freedom Act was watered down by the House leadership in secret negotiations with the intelligence community,” Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, said to the Daily Beast.
Aware that the restrictions won’t take effect unless they are approved by Congress as a whole, Bankston urged the Senate to pass a similar measure as a comprehensive defense appropriations bill makes its way to President Obama’s desk.
Despite the overwhelming passage, the amendment faced numerous obstacles before its passage. Massie told the Post that House leaders did not lend their support, and that it was only by having bipartisan co-sponsors that it was able to come up for a vote.
As noted by the Daily Beast, NSA supporters also criticized the quick rush to vote on the amendment, believing the agency’s behavior is within the confines of the law and that weakening it will also diminish the US’ national security.
“We shouldn't be doing this on an appropriations bill after only 10 minutes of debate,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD).
Speaking with the Guardian, ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer argued that regardless of who the NSA’s official targets are, the ends don’t justify the means when it comes to searching the private records of US citizens.
"The mere fact that the government’s 'targets' are foreigners outside the United States cannot render constitutional a program that is designed to allow the government to mine millions of Americans’ international communications for foreign intelligence information," he said.
Whether or not an appropriations bill containing the amendment’s strong language makes its way to Obama remains to be seen, however. Massie was pleased with the vote, but acknowledged that getting the Senate onboard and merging the two versions in conference will be a challenge.
"That's going to be the trick," he told the Post. "It would take somebody to support it on the Senate side as well, and in conference.”