House Republican Introduces Backup Plan to Squash NSA Phone Spying

Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., filed an amendment Monday that would take a key section of the USA Freedom Act. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., filed an amendment Monday that would take a key section of the USA Freedom Act. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

A tea-party lawmaker is offering an amendment to protect a government-surveillance reform bill from being hollowed out due to pressure from the Obama administration and national-security hawks.

Rep. Justin Amash filed an amendment Monday that would take a key section of the USA Freedom Act—which aims to effectively end the government's mass collection of Americans' phone records—and strap it onto the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual funding bill that Congress will vote on later this week. The Amash amendment would strip funding from intelligence programs justified under Section 215 of the post-9/11 Patriot Act except in certain circumstances, an anti-spying move reminiscent of one the Michigan Republican pulled last summer.

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 Rules panel is scheduled to consider the rules of debate on the NDAA bill Wednesday, at which time it will decide whether to accept Amash's amendment.

House leadership and White House officials have been meeting with select lawmakers to discuss possible changes to the Freedom Act, which was passed through both the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees in an amended form two weeks ago. Those talks continued Monday, but sources say the bill could lose some of its current privacy and transparency protections. Fears that the bill could get watered down further have prompted some of the bill's supporters to warn that their support hangs in the balance.

"Efforts to weaken the ban [on bulk collection of phone records] could drive away the civil-liberties groups that now support the bill," said Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's project on freedom, security and technology.

A section that allows tech companies more leeway in reporting to customers the requests for user data it receives from the government is among the changes believed to be still subject to negotiation. Also in contention is how narrowly intelligence agencies should be required to define selected targets when data searches are conducted.

Amash gained notoriety last summer for his aggressive opposition to NSA spying in the wake of Edward Snowden's disclosures. In July, he offered an amendment to a Department of Defense appropriations bill that would have stripped the NSA of funding for its phone-spying program. The measure, opposed by House leadership, narrowly fell 205-217.

In addition to Amash's plan, Rep. Zoe Lofgren has offered an NDAA amendment that would set a probable-cause standard for the search of U.S. communications under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and another that would prohibit intelligence agencies from requiring device manufacturers or software developers to build an encryption "backdoor" into their products.

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