Congress Considers Stripping NSA of Surveillance Powers

Rep. Justin Amash    photo credit: Jay Westcott/POLITICO

The major players in Washington are wrangling over the future of the NSA’s domestic mass surveillance program as Congress attempts to strip power from the White House’s security apparatus.

Meanwhile, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is still fighting for temporary asylum in Russia.

Debate was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon on an amendment from Rep. Justin Amash, a two-term libertarian Republican from Michigan, who is attempting to prevent the NSA from collecting bulk phone records on millions of Americans.

This is considered Congress’ first opportunity give its opinion on the widespread NSA surveillance revealed by Snowden.

“This is the moment,” Michelle Richardson, a surveillance lobbyist for the ACLU, told the Guardian.

The Obama administration is portraying Amash’s efforts as a reckless attempt to infringe upon long-standing, secret surveillance activity they consider vital for national security.

The fight in Congress is a rare political battle that divides not along party lines, but between the civil libertarians vs. the security hawks, who exist in both parties. For instance, longtime Obama supporter and liberal John Conyers of Michigan, who is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, supports the Amash amendment.

The White House yesterday took the unusual step of opposing the amendment ahead of the vote, calling it “not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process,” and warning it would “hastily dismantle” a counterterrorism tool.

The statement, by White House press secretary Jay Carney, said: “We urge the House to reject the Amash amendment and instead move forward with an approach that appropriately takes into account the need for a reasoned review of what tools can best secure the nation.”

“When’s the last time a president put out an emergency statement against an amendment?” Amash tweeted last night. “The Washington elites fear liberty. They fear you.”

A Washington Post poll released yesterday found widespread public skepticism of the NSA, with 74 percent of respondents saying the agency’s monitoring of telephone records and Internet communications intrudes on Americans’ privacy rights generally and 49 percent believing it intrudes on their own.

“Whether the amendment succeeds or fails, the support and attention it has garnered sends a clear message to the intelligence community,” Elizabeth Goitein of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School told the Guardian.

“Members of both parties are picking up on the sentiment of the American people that there are limits to what the government should be permitted to do in the name of national security. We all want to be kept safe from terrorism, but that is not a license to engage in indiscriminate collection of Americans’ personal information.”

As for Snowden’s fate in Russia, the Russian Federal Migration Service issued him a certificate earlier today that states that the agency was reviewing his asylum application. The certificate reportedly means Snowden can finally leave the Moscow airport where he has been living since June 23 when he arrived there with a revoked U.S. passport.

Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, who was supposed to pick up the certificate, was seen Wednesday afternoon entering the airport and proceeding to Transit Zone E, according to Interfax.

“This certificate will allow Snowden to cross the Russian border and finally leave the airport transit zone,” Kucherena said in an interview  earlier this week, when he also said he hoped he would get the document on Snowden’s behalf by Wednesday.

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