Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mi.), the libertarian-leaning first-term House member who came close to scoring a major legislative victory over the National Security Agency last summer, is back again with two similar amendments to this year’s defense spending bill. If the narrow defeat of his effort last year to defund the NSA’s metadata program had a silver lining, it’s that his second try might just succeed.
Last July, a defense bill amendment authored by Amash and co-sponsored by Michigan Democrat John Conyers, which would have stripped funding from the NSA’s bulk phone metadata collection program, lost in the House of Representatives by only seven votes. It was a much closer call than pundits (and even some informed lawmakers) had anticipated, and reflected a strong political will among Congressmen to respond to the Edward Snowden scandal with meaningful reform.
“Justin Amash almost beat the NSA. Next time, he might do it.” That was The Washington Post’s story headline the day after Amash’s NSA amendment died on a 205-217 House vote. POLITICO went with “Justin Amash prevails as amendment fails.”
Now we’ll see if that momentum will carry over into the debate on this year’s defense bill. There’s reason for optimism: Not only has Amash introduced two amendments this time around, but there’s a separate, more comprehensive standalone bill before the House — the USA Freedom Act — that, if successful, would obviate the Amash amendments, which are intended as a “backstop” in case the Freedom Act fails.
Amash attached the pair of amendments precisely to give the Freedom Act a helping hand, as National Journal reported Tuesday:
The amendment, offered to the Rules Committee, is meant as a fail-safe in the event the Freedom Act does not also come up for consideration this week in its current form or something closely resembling it, said Will Adams, Amash’s chief of staff. House leadership has scheduled the bill for “possible consideration” this week, but backdoor dealings that may change it continued through the weekend and spilled into this week.
“If negotiations keep dragging on and we don’t get consideration of the Freedom Act this week, we will use our opportunity to move with the NDAA legislation an amendment that would address NSA surveillance,” Adams said.
The first of Amash’s new amendments would fund NSA data seizures authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court only if each search order is accompanied by a statement that specifically delineates “selection terms” — presumably search query words — deemed worthy of suspicion by the court. It would also give a 180-day shelf life to each court order.
The other amendment codifies the above stipulations in a general ban on bulk collection, requiring each NSA data search to target a specific subject on “reasonable grounds to believe that the call detail records sought to be produced based on the specific selection term are relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment) conducted in accordance with section 501(a)(2) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978…”
To read the present incarnation of Section 501(a)(2), click here and scroll down to page 42. It’s perhaps worth noting that sections 501 and 502 of the FISA are set to revert next June to their original language prior to the creation of the Patriot Act — unless, of course, the current language is reauthorized between now and then.
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