Something unusual happened on the floor of the House of Representatives this week: Lawmakers divided themselves, not along party lines, but on the question of whether a top-secret surveillance program that has scooped up information from every telephone call in the country over the last seven years should continue. An amendment to the annual defense spending bill – co-sponsored by young, libertarian Michigan Republican Justin Amash and veteran, liberal Michigan Democrat John Conyers – contended that it should not. It failed on Wednesday night by just 12 votes: 205 in favor, 217 against.
The Amash-Conyers amendment set out to end the NSA’s “blanket” and “indiscriminate” collection of Americans’ telephone records and limit collection of such information to the subjects of authorized national security investigations. It was the first legislation to directly challenge the NSA’s bulk surveillance of American phone records since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden turned over a trove of secret documents about the program to the media less than two months ago.
The heated debate surrounding the amendment resulted in a number of surprising coalitions. On one side stood President Obama and his inner circle of national security and intelligence advisors, plus the GOP leadership and veteran fear-mongers like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) – all of whom strongly support the NSA surveillance program. The White House so badly wanted the amendment to fail that it put out a press release on Monday night explicitly saying so and dispatched NSA officials to pressure House members to vote against it. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and her deputy Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) both voted against the amendment, joining with the likes of Bachmann, who predictably invoked the threat of “Islamic jihad” from the floor, and Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), who suggested that Amash was just playing “a game” in pursuit of Facebook likes.
Yet a majority of Democrats defied their party leadership to vote in favor of the Amash-Conyers amendment, as did a sizeable number of Republicans. Together, they argued that not only has indiscriminate NSA collection of domestic phone records been ineffective, it is a violation of core Constitutional values. They lost that debate when the vote was tallied on Wednesday night, but they came closer to winning than many outside observers expected. “We’re very excited,” Michelle Richardson, a legislative counsel at the ACLU, tells Rolling Stone. “While the amendment didn’t pass, being within only a handful of votes of stopping a major surveillance program is a huge sea change.”
Richardson believes members of Congress who voted in support of the amendment will now feel emboldened to raise the issue of bulk, domestic NSA surveillance in future bills. “I think there’s a couple of game-changers here,” she says. “Number One being the Snowden leak, obviously, and seeing that FISA court order, and the members being able to read in black and white that they’re talking about Americans here – not foreigners, like they’ve been told.” The other big factor cited by Richardson? Justin Amash and his staff. “There’s always been a few dozen libertarians in the Republican party,” she adds, “but he has the drive and the organizational skill and the staff to change the outcome of these votes.”
Amash, 33, was elected to the House in 2010. A second-generation Arab-American and native Michigander, he has a reputation for social media savvy, mixing up pop culture with conservative politics on Twitter. (“Why should one man control the value of money? What does God need with a starship? Equally perplexing questions. #EndTheFed #StarTrekV.”) Politically, he is a mixed bag, reflecting standard conservative positions on some issues while taking a decidedly more independent stance on others. Amash wants to repeal Obamacare and has co-sponsored several bills to restrict abortion rights, vowing to “always vote against government funding of abortion.” Yet he has also argued for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (stating that the federal government poses a greater threat to the institution of marriage than gay people) and emerged as an outspoken critic of ongoing U.S. military operations in undeclared war zones. In addition to the NSA amendment, he has also supported legislation barring the indefinite detention of American citizens.
Will Adams is Amash’s deputy chief of staff. “The tide has turned in Congress, as it turned long ago for the American people, against suspicion-less surveillance of Americans’ telephone records,” he tells Rolling Stone. He points out that in 2011, when the same Patriot Act provision challenged in the Amash-Conyers amendment came up for a vote, only 31 Republicans (including Amash) opposed its re-authorization. “Yesterday,” he notes, “we had 94.”
Adams says the radical expansion of the government’s secret surveillance powers is not a strictly partisan issue. “The Bush administration did this,” he says. When they left office, “the Obama administration didn’t skip a beat. They continued those policies and perhaps even expanded those policies. It’s remarkable.”
Adams adds that the fundamental secrecy surrounding the government’s domestic intelligence operations under both parties has led to an untenable contradiction. “We are in a very strange and disturbing time when the law, meaning the law as interpreted by the FISA court and as argued by the administration, is secret,” he says. “How can members of Congress do their job – how can our representative form of government function – if those tasked with writing laws have no clue what the law is? The system’s broken.”
Conyers, too, has hailed the colleagues who supported this amendment. “Standing up for civil liberties is a bipartisan affair,” his office writes in an email to Rolling Stone. “[Wednesday’s] vote on the Amash-Conyers amendment was closer than anyone anticipated, and our coalition will not back down from this fight. Individual privacy and national security are not competing values. They are principles equally worth defending, and we do not have to trade one for the other.”
For activists who have put years of work into challenging the government’s electronic surveillance programs, yesterday felt like a turning point. “Short-term, I’m disappointed that the vote failed,” says Trevor Timm, a digital rights analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But I think this is an enormous momentum shift.” Watching the Congressional debate unfold on Wednesday, he says, “You could tell the difference between the people who cared about privacy and the Constitution and those who were only interested in defending the surveillance state.”
Adds Timm, “These types of provisions usually fail without even a passing mention in the media. Now this has become a central issue for both Democrats and Republicans. And it’s clear that this is just the beginning.”