Working late into the night, the House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to bar the National Security Agency from searching the content of Americans’ communications without a warrant. With a majority of both Democrats and Republicans voting for the measure, it passed 293-123.
The proposal, a bipartisan collaboration between California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, was also backed by several sponsors of a watered-down surveillance reform measure that passed the House weeks ago.
The first major legislation dealing with surveillance powers since leaks facilitated by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began last year, the bill had been abandoned by civil liberties groups after its most sweeping measures had all been stripped out.
The vote Thursday was surveillance reform advocates’ biggest show of strength since the House came within 12 votes of defunding a key section of the Patriot Act last year. Co-sponsors of the measure included Republicans Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Ted Poe of Texas, Justin Amash of Michigan, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Tom Petri of Wisconsin. Democratic co-sponsors included John Conyers of Michigan, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Rush Holt of New Jersey and Jerrold Nadler of New York.
“This amendment is simple, it allows us to get the bad guys, but it also says use probable cause and the Fourth Amendment,” said Rep. Lofgren prior to the vote. “We need to protect our country, but we also need to honor our Constitution.”
Although President Barack Obama has said that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” technically the NSA is empowered to search through the content of Americans’ communications without a warrant if collected while the agency is targeting communications where one party is believed to be overseas, under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.
Civil liberties advocates refer to such searches as “backdoor searches,” because while technically barred from deliberately targeting Americans’ communications, the NSA can look through what they collect “incidentally.” The Lofgren-Massie amendment bars funds from being used “to query a collection of foreign intelligence information acquired under section 702” while “using an identifier of a United States person.”
It is unknown how many such searches have been performed. However, at a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, administration officials agreed to provide Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden with answers as to how many “backdoor searches” have been performed. Though the NSA was supposed to respond by June 19, a Senate aide said the agency had asked for a few more days to compile the information.
Public outrage over the Snowden revelations has yet to push Congress toward major changes to government surveillance powers. Thursday’s vote illustrated how much of the earlier surveillance bill had been a product of the committee chairs’ ability to sway the legislative process. Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, did not bring the bill to a vote until after a compromise brokered with surveillance reform advocates removed most of the changes civil liberties groups had been asking for. After an identical version of the bill passed the hawkish House Intelligence Committee, it was watered down even further at the request of the Obama administration, to the point where almost all the groups that had backed it as a half-a-loaf measure decided it wasn’t even that.
The vote on Thursday, however, indicates that, while the House leadership might be opposed, there remains broad support in Congress for rolling back government surveillance powers. The Lofgren-Massie amendment still has to make it through the Senate, and it could conceivably be stripped out during the conferencing process, when representatives from each chamber reconcile the differences between their versions of the defense bill.
“We applaud the House for taking this important first step, and we look forward to other elected officials standing up for our right to privacy,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Mark Rumold said in a statement after the vote.