House Votes to Cut Off Funding for NSA ‘Backdoor’ Spying

Lawmakers added a surveillance-reform amendment to an appropriations bill.

A computer workstation bears the National Security Agency (NSA) logo inside the Threat Operations Center inside the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland, intelligence gathering operation 25 January 2006 after US President George W. Bush delivered a speech behind closed doors and met with employees in advance of Senate hearings on the much-criticized domestic surveillance. 
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
June 20, 2014, 8:03 a.m.

The House voted late Thursday to curb the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s power to spy on Amer­ic­ans.

In a 293-123 vote, law­makers ap­proved an amend­ment to a de­fense ap­pro­pri­ations bill that would bar the NSA from us­ing any funds for two “back­door” spy­ing pro­grams.

“That over­whelm­ing vote changes the tra­ject­ory of this is­sue mov­ing for­ward,” Rep. Zoe Lof­gren, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat who sponsored the amend­ment, said in an in­ter­view Fri­day.

The NSA has ac­know­ledged that it some­times spies on Amer­ic­ans’ com­mu­nic­a­tions un­der a pro­gram in­ten­ded to ap­ply only to for­eign­ers. The NSA scoops up vast batches of emails and oth­er data from for­eign­ers and then searches through that data­base, spe­cific­ally look­ing for Amer­ic­ans’ com­mu­nic­a­tions.

The amend­ment would re­quire that the NSA ob­tain a war­rant be­fore read­ing Amer­ic­ans’ private mes­sages. The meas­ure would also close an­oth­er con­tro­ver­sial NSA “back­door” by cut­ting off funds for pro­jects to build vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies in­to se­cur­ity products. The NSA ex­ploits those vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies to hack in­to and spy on com­mu­nic­a­tions.

Rep. Thomas Massie, a Ken­tucky Re­pub­lic­an, also spear­headed the amend­ment, which was co­sponsored by law­makers in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Jim Sensen­bren­ner and Justin Amash and Demo­crat­ic Rep. John Con­yers.

House GOP lead­ers have tra­di­tion­ally de­fen­ded the NSA, and Rep. Kev­in Mc­Carthy, the new Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity lead­er, voted against the amend­ment. But Rep. Steve Scal­ise, the new ma­jor­ity whip, split from Mc­Carthy and backed the meas­ure. 

House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mike Ro­gers and rank­ing mem­ber Dutch Rup­pers­ber­ger tried in vain to rally op­pos­i­tion. In a floor speech, Rup­pers­ber­ger warned that the lan­guage would make the na­tion “less safe.”

“It would pro­hib­it the ur­gent search of law­fully col­lec­ted in­form­a­tion to thwart a bomb plot against a syn­agogue in Los Angeles, a church in Mary­land, or the New York Stock Ex­change,” Rup­pers­ber­ger said, adding that the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess is the wrong ven­ue for dra­mat­ic changes to in­tel­li­gence pro­grams.

The meas­ure goes bey­ond the pri­vacy pro­tec­tions in the USA Free­dom Act, a sur­veil­lance-re­form bill the House passed last month. House lead­ers made last-minute changes to the USA Free­dom Act be­fore it reached the floor that promp­ted many pri­vacy groups and law­makers to pull their sup­port.

The Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence and Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tees are now con­sid­er­ing the NSA re­form bill.

Lof­gren said she’s not sure wheth­er her amend­ment will make it in­to law through the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess. But she said Thursday night’s vote is a power­ful mes­sage to the Sen­ate as the cham­ber be­gins con­sid­er­a­tion of the USA Free­dom Act.

“Mem­bers are go­ing to be held ac­count­able by their con­stitu­ents for what they do,” she said.

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