Closer Than Expected Vote in House to Defund NSA Dragnet Surveillance Shows Reform is Within Reach

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Posted July 31, 2013

Interview with Nathan White, national spokesperson with Restore the Fourth, conducted by Scott Harris

surveillance

In a surprise to many inside-the-beltway politicians and media pundits, legislation that would have defunded the National Security Agency’s program that collects massive amounts of data on U.S. citizens’ phone communications, narrowly lost in the U.S. House of Representatives by only 12 votes on July 24. This, despite bipartisan opposition to the measure by the Obama administration and both Republican and Democratic Party leaders.

The amendment to the annual Pentagon appropriations bill, sponsored by House Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and co-sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. was defeated by a vote of 205-217. The close vote came despite an aggressive lobbying campaign by the Obama White House and top intelligence officials who declared that the government’s dragnet surveillance programs of American’s communications have thwarted an unspecified number of terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.

The House vote is the latest indication that the revelations made to the press by former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden about the U.S. government’s previously unknown massive collection of domestic and overseas phone and Internet records, has eroded public support for those programs. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Nathan White, national spokesperson with Restore the Fourth, a group that seeks to raise awareness of unconstitutional surveillance. Here he discusses the significance of the narrow defeat of the Amish amendment and why he believes citizen pressure will eventually prevail in reforming the government’s surveillance programs.

NATHAN WHITE: In the years that I have been watching Congress, this is one of the most surprising things that I have ever seen happen. The amendment that was put forth, as you said by Congressman Amash of Michigan, was not expected to be accepted. At the last minute, John Boehner, the speaker of the House, allowed the amendment to be incorporated into a fairly large spending bill that would have funded basically the Department of Defense. It was unexpected that this amendment would even be allowed because, John Boehner himself was against it. But because there was so much pressure within his party, he allowed the vote to take place.

That in and of itself was surprising, but it just gets more surprising from there. The announcement was made at about 9 o'clock, I think it was on a Tuesday. Within an hour, the head of the NSA, Gen. Keith Alexander announced that the very next day, he would go to Capitol Hill, he'd clear his schedule with Capitol Hill for four hours to hold two two-hour briefs with Congress. Confidential, classified member-only briefings to personally lobby on behalf of these programs. The GOP went into overdrive whipping their members, saying do not vote for this. They offered a distraction amendment, which allows members to claim that they're voting to rein in the NSA, but it's written in a way that it actually doesn't change any of the practices. That was the Nugent amendment. The White House issued a strong statement saying this was a terrible idea, it was rash; it would harm national security. Leader Pelosi had a personal vendetta, whipping Democrats and progressives on this issue. Seven chairmen of the GOP sent out a letter saying this would harm national security, must stand with leadership. Eight members of the former intelligence community who led spy agencies said we must absolutely not do this.

And after all of that, the vote was 217 to 205. It was 12 votes. Seven members of Congress could have flipped this, with all that pressure. And what's even more surprising, is that it was very bipartisan. It was members of both parties – in the Republican party and the Democratic party. And, we needed bipartisan action; that's nearly a miracle on any issue, let alone an issue as controversial as national security and government spying.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Nathan White, what comes here? I've read reports that Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California are working a new initiative to change how this country surveils our communication system. I'm wondering what have you heard about what they're working on and does it go far enough?

NATHAN WHITE: Sure. What he (Sensenbrenner) just said is incredibly important and let me inform your listeners, Congressman Sensenbrenner, who is a Republican from Wisconsin, is actually very widely credited as being the author of the Patriot Act. As I said, most of the pieces of the Patriot Act existed before 9/11. But he is the one who was shepherding the Patriot Act from conception to law. And the three times it's been reauthorized, he's shepherded it through the congressional system. In a hearing last week, where the legal counsel for the NSA and the legal counsel for the Department of Justice were testifying before his committee – actually a difference congressman – he's on that committee, he's not the chairman of that committee ... sorry for that confusion. He specifically said to the NSA, I did not mean for the programs to be enacted the way you've enacted them, and if you continue them under these circumstances, I cannot get these programs reauthorized in 2015. Which goes to show even the person who is credited with writing this thinks this has gone too far and is now proposing legislation to rein that in.

I do think there's a lot of reason to be optimistic that the system is working, that after a long time, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way. And over the long course of history, the American Constitution will hopefully be saved.

However, that's only going to happen as long as people continue the pressure that Congress has responded to in the last two months. Towards that end, my group, Restore the Fourth, is planning our next day of action on Aug. 4. We're calling it 1984 Day, in reference to the George Orwell novel, 1984, in which a suspicious spies on its citizens and as a result, there's self-censorship to control the people and control their very thought.

The vote last Wednesday (July 24) was incredibly promising and very heartening for people like me who've been following this for a long time. But it's not done yet, and we need to keep working to make sure that we do get our members of Congress to be responsive, to continue to be responsive to the American people.

Find more information on Restore the Fourth’s upcoming 1984 national day of protest by visiting RestoretheFourth.net.

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