Will Lawmakers Respond to Alarms About Surveillance Powers in Next Congress?

One hundred Republicans and Democrats have found an issue they can agree upon in Congress – the need to rein in the nation’s intelligence gathering community.

So far they have been fighting the good fight and losing with honor. But when the next Congress is seated in 2015, the tide could turn if only because there will be so many new faces confronting those who have been entrenched in power.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) did his best Dec. 10 to slam the door shut on a provision of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2015 that he is afraid will allow the White House to spy on any U.S. citizen without bothering to ask a judge for permission.

The Republican from Grand Rapids, Mich., pushed back against the door that he said was shoved open to an unprecedented degree by the intelligence community, and pleaded for help from fellow believers in Congress to defeat H.R. 4681.

Amash told his Facebook followers he demanded a roll call vote on the legislation when his staff told him about the provision they found most heinous, Sec. 309, which was inserted by the Senate.

“It grants the executive branch virtually unlimited access to the communications of every American,” Amash explained.

The legislation was being rushed to the House floor for a voice vote, which Amash said would have meant it would have been declared “passed” with very few House members present.

Demanding a roll call vote gave Amash and his supporters time to send out a letter pleading for a “no” vote.

Amash admitted it was too little, too late. The legislation was approved and sent to President Obama for his signature.

“With more time to spread the word, we would have stopped this bill, which passed 325-100. Thanks to the 99 other representatives—44 Republicans and 55 Democrats—who voted to protect our rights and uphold the Constitution,” he posted on Facebook.

Patrick G. Eddington, a policy analyst in homeland security and civil liberties for the Cato Institute, told PJ Media this is a fight that every American needs to be watching, if only because the government is certainly watching us.

He said archive documents made public by NSA leaker Edward Snowden show the federal government has been targeting anyone utilizing the free and open software Tor, which is designed to hide and protect a user’s identity.

“Now Sec. 309 language seems to suggest that if you use Apple products such as Facetime or iMessage, or Android products utilizing OpenWhisper’s systems, for example, you can expect the U.S. government to try to retain your data if they ‘reasonably believe’ you’ve been in contact with someone overseas, particularly (but not exclusively) countries of intense interest to NSA such as Pakistan, the GCC states, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa,” he told PJ Media.

Eddington said Section 309 is problematic on several levels and only underscores why privacy and civil liberties advocates will continue to push for real reforms in intelligence collection.

Still, the leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee — Republicans and Democrats — were unanimous in their support of the legislation.

They said Amash and the other 99 missed the point that the legislation puts a limit of five years on the time the data intercepted can be warehoused and studied by intelligence agencies.

A Senate Intelligence Committee spokesman told the National Journal there is nothing in Section 309 that would allow any new method or criteria for intelligence collection.

"The only thing the section does is require new procedures governing the information the [intelligence community] already collects,” the spokesman said. “The purpose of the section is to limit the [intelligence community's] existing ability to retain information, including U.S. personal information.”

Amash described that as a weak argument.

He conceded the point that Section 309 requires disposal of the communications plucked from Americans’ emails, phone calls, and other electronic communications in five years.

But the White House and its various intelligence agencies already do that, Amash said.