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On Thursday, the House very narrowly defeated the amendment by Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and John Conyers (D-MI) to scale back the NSA's surveillance power to the letter of the Patriot Act law. The final vote was 205-217. The amendment was shepherded to the floor by leadership, reportedly, because of a groundswell of Republican lawmakers who demanded the vote. Ninety-four Republicans supported the amendment, along with 111 Democrats.
Among those Republicans was Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who was a primary author of the Patriot Act who said that the NSA's dragnet surveillance—allowed by the secret interpretation of Section 215 by the FISA court—goes far beyond the intent of his law, and that his bill was never intended to allow for the mass collection of data from every American. "The time has come to stop it," he said in floor debate.
The vote came the same day that co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Keen and Lee Hamilton argued in an op-ed in Politico that "It's time to debate the NSA program."
When the Congress and the courts work in secret; when massive amounts of data are collected from Americans and enterprises; when government’s power of intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens, augmented by the awesome power of advanced technologies, is hugely expanded without public debate or discussion over seven years, then our sense of constitutional process and accountability is deeply offended.
Officials insist that the right balance has been struck between security and privacy. But how would we know, when all the decisions have been made in secret, with almost no oversight? [...]
President Barack Obama has rightly called for a national discussion, which his administration and Congress should convene. It is unfortunate that this conversation begins only when an unauthorized leaker divulges secrets he has agreed, under penalty of law, to keep. But the issues are now before the public. It is time to trust the American people’s judgment about where to strike the balance between what is, after all, their security and their freedom.
The vote also came on a day when new polling from NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed that a strong majority of voters—56 percent—say that "they're more worried the United States will go too far in violating privacy rights" than that the U.S. "wouldn't go far enough to pursue potential terrorists." The shift in public opinion is seen in the shift among members of Congress.
The vote in the House Thursday should be considered the opening of the debate President Obama has said he would welcome. Indeed, an open, public debate might be the thing that's needed to maintain this program. Sensenbrenner has warned that the program won't be renewed in 2015 without changes. The administration might want to bet that he'll forget that threat by the time the Patriot Act is up for renewal, but this vote suggests that would be a false hope.