House to vote on amendment restricting NSA metadata collection - UPDATED

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Update appended

The House will debate a proposed amendment to the fiscal 2014 defense appropriations bill that would prevent the National Security Agency from undertaking the bulk collection of telephone metadata records.

The amendment (.pdf), known as Amash-Conyers for Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), would narrow intelligence community application of Section 215, requiring the collection to be connected to specific individuals. The House Rules Committee approved on July 22 the amendment for 30 minutes of House debate, likely to occur the afternoon of July 24.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has interpreted Section 215 (codified at 50 USC § 1861) broadly to permit the NSA to collect and store all transactional records of domestic and international telephone calls generated by U.S. carriers and search them later, subject to a standard of "reasonable and articulable suspicion."

Critics contend that the section language was meant to restrict record collection to specific individuals rather than permit bulk collection in a database followed by targeted queries, an argument they say is bolstered by NSA's admission that it sometimes conducts three-hop queries, which exponentially increase the number of telephone numbers that can be examined in a single database query.

The intelligence community has argued that without bulk collection, it may not be able to access the full extent of data needed to trace terrorist or foreign intelligence networks and that the reasonable and articulable suspicion prevents untoward privacy intrusions. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a July 19 statement that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court gave assent to a periodic renewal of authority for the metadata collection program.

The Amash-Conyers amendment has drawn support from privacy advocates, including the Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union, which sent legislators a July 23 letter (.pdf) urging them to approve it.

It's drawn condemnation from the Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman and vice chairman, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), respectively, who issued a July 23 statement that the committee "has explored how the program can be modified to add extra privacy protections without sacrificing its effectiveness," an option they say is better than defunding it.

The White House also opposed it, with spokesman Jay Carney calling the amendment an effort "to hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community's counterterrorism tools," reports Businessweek.

The House Rules Committee also approved for House debate an amendment (.pdf) from Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.). The amendment makes two prohibitions--one against targeting U.S. citizens under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, and one against using Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect the content of communications. Both activities are already illegal under current law, meaning that the Nugent amendment in fact only affirms the status quo.

Update July 24, 8 p.m.: The House defeated the amendment in a 217-205 vote that did not break down along party lines, since substantial numbers of Democrats and Republicans voted on both sides of the issue.

For more:
- download the Amash-Conyers amendment (.pdf)
- download the Amash amendment (.pdf)
- download the ACLU letter (.pdf)
- read the CDT statement
- read the Feinstein-Chambliss statement

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