House rejects effort to curb NSA phone surveillance

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — The U.S. House on Wednesday narrowly defeated a proposal to sharply restrict the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program that was exposed by Edward Snowden.

A coalition of libertarian, liberal and conservative lawmakers pushed for curbs on the blanket collection of those records, arguing that it was too broad and intrusive.

The restriction, proposed as an amendment to a defense spending bill, was defeated 217 to 205.

Snowden, a former NSA contractor, revealed details of the bulk phone tracking effort and a companion e-mail collection initiative through leaks of classified information to media outlets last month.

Since then, some lawmakers have been highly critical of the sweeping way in which the government applies telephone surveillance that is overseen by a secret court.

Lawmakers from both parties and privacy groups concluded the government had reached too far into the personal lives of Americans in the interests of national security.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said during debate on the amendment that the NSA had exceeded its mandate. He said the measure would have halted surveillance of people not under direct investigation by authorities.

“The time has come to stop it,” he said.

But Rep. Tom Cotton said approval of the amendment would have effectively killed the program, which he said has been found constitutional and approved by bipartisan majorities.

“Folks, we are at war,” said Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and Iraq veteran who urged his colleagues not to undermine the surveillance tool he said was critical for troops in the field in counterterrorism operations.

National security officials personally lobbied House members this week, hoping to derail the vote. They have said phone and e-mail surveillance have helped thwart terror plots. The White House also urged the House to reject it.

Senior House Republicans who oversee defense and national security committees also expressed their concern with the bid to restrict the program approved by Congress as part of the Patriot Act.

James Clapper, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, and NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander answered questions this week from lawmakers about the data collection effort that relies on cooperation from telecommunications companies.

“What you can see is that everybody wants to ensure we protect civil liberties and privacy and defend this country,” Alexander said. “We have that responsibility, and the issue is, how do we do that? How do we take care of our people and protect our civil liberties and privacy? This is a tough issue.”

The defeated House amendment was crafted by Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

Separate from the House action, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein has been leading an effort “to see if we can change some parts” of the program to meet privacy concerns. But she told CNN it would be “premature” to mandate changes now while their review is under way.

By CNN Staff

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