NSA Tries to Save Surveillance Program Before Vote on Amash Proposal

Posted July 23, 2013 at 2:56pm

The National Security Agency held four hours worth of “top secret” briefings Tuesday to lobby members of the House to continue funding its secret surveillance program.

First reported by the Huffington Post, the head of the NSA, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, urged House lawmakers during the two classified briefings to oppose an amendment from Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would defund the NSA’s blanket collection of telephone records.

Republicans held a two-hour briefing with Alexander at 11 a.m.; Democrats followed at 1 p.m.

Amash won the battle to have his amendment voted on as part of debate on the Defense Department spending bill, but he has not yet won the war — and he won’t if the NSA has anything to say about it.

Aides theorized Tuesday that the members-only briefing outlined instances in which the surveillance program was successful.

Whatever was discussed did not change Amash’s mind about the program.

A senior aide for Amash told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday afternoon that despite the unusual lobbying effort, the lawmaker had not changed his stance.

“I’ve never heard of an official of that stature, in the middle of the night, being told to hustle down to the Hill for a four-hour long briefing,” the aide said. 
“The more information members have about the NSA surveillance program, the more unease they have about the program’s operation.”

The aide said Amash went to the 11 a.m. Republican “question and answer session” to monitor the briefing and hear the arguments.

“He has attended every briefing on the NSA surveillance program he has been invited to, and none of it has changed his mind,” the aide said. “It’s had the opposite effect.”

On Tuesday morning, Amash praised leadership for allowing his amendment, along with other amendments that would prohibit funding for military operations in Syria and Egypt.

“Overall leadership did a great job working with us and came to a reasonable resolution,” Amash told CQ Roll Call.

Asked why he thought leadership had agreed to make the amendments in order, Amash said leadership “came to [the] conclusion” that those were amendments that had enough support to be brought to the floor for a vote. Amash and a bloc of other libertarian-leaning lawmakers had threatened to vote down the rule if their amendments were not made in order.

“There were enough people concerned about those amendments not coming to the floor [that] I think leadership would have had a difficult time bringing the bill to the floor,” Amash said.

Amash explained that leadership didn’t want the amendments out of concern that discussing some of the details of the program might be problematic.

“But with my amendment, that’s not really a problem and I think they came to that conclusion,” he said.

Amash said the details regarding the collection of phone records had already been declassified largely by the Director of National Intelligence. In fact, he said, you could go to the DNI’s website and find information about how they are collecting phone records, noting that there was “widespread disapproval” of the program.

“I think my amendment has the votes to pass,” Amash said.

The vote is expected to be the last in a series of 100 amendments to the Defense spending bill.