And they should. CBS reoprts that NSA Director Keith Alexander made an “emergency visit” to Capitol Hill to head off a potentially embarrassing vote to defund his agency’s trawling of phone and Internet records. House Republican leaders allowed a vote on an amendment by Rep. Justin Amash to use the power of the purse to rein in the NSA, and the panic shows that the effort might well succeed in the Senate when the budget comes to the upper chamber:
With a high-stakes showdown vote looming in the House, White House press secretary Jay Carney issued an unusual, nighttime statement on the eve of Wednesday’s vote. The measure by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., would cancel statutory authority for the secret program, a move that Carney contended would “hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community’s counterterrorism tools.”
Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, made a last-minute trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to reject the measure in separate, closed-door sessions with Republicans and Democrats. Seven Republican committee chairmen issued a similar plea in a widely circulated letter to their colleagues.
An unlikely coalition of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats says the program amounts to unfettered domestic spying on Americans. Amash and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., are the chief sponsors of an amendment that would end the ability of the NSA to collect phone records and metadata under the USA Patriot Act. Instead the agency would only be allowed to gather data on specific individuals under investigation, CBS News congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes reported on “CBS This Morning” Wednesday.
Amash said his measure tries to rein in the NSA’s blanket authority. Responding to the White House statement, the congressman tweeted late Tuesday:
Pres Obama opposes my #NSA amendment, but American people overwhelmingly support it. Will your Rep stand with the WH or the Constitution?
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) July 24, 2013
Republican leaders allowed the House to consider Amash’s amendment to a $598.3 billion defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Amash seems to be on the popular side of this fight, at least according to the WaPo/ABC poll. Almost three-quarters of respondents think the NSA goes too far, and a plurality believe it doesn’t make the country any safer:
Nearly three-quarters of Americans say the NSA programs are infringing on some Americans’ privacy rights, and about half see those programs as encroaching on their own privacy. Most of those who see the programs as compromising privacy say the intrusions are unjustified.
The percentage of Americans who put a higher priority on privacy protections than the investigation of terrorist threats has more than doubled in a decade and has hit the highest point in any Post-ABC News poll dating back to summer 2002. Today, about four in 10 say it is more important to protect privacy even if that limits the government’s ability to investigate possible terrorist threats.
Some of the discomfort stems from doubts that the programs are making the United States safer. Only 42 percent say the programs make the country safer. More, 47 percent, see the programs as making little difference in the country’s security. And 5 percent say they actually make the nation less safe.
The emergency meetings should have been with the American people, and with lawmakers to improve oversight. The series of rationalizations and term-parsing since the Snowden revelations hasn’t built confidence in the NSA’s protestations of integrity, especially after the way Alexander and DNI James Clapper have misled Congress in the past about these programs. For better or worse, they are reaping what they have sown.