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NSA surveillance opponents take to courts and Congress in push for change

Privacy advocates, companies, and members of Congress have begun a push for reform since this summer's revelations about US surveillance capabilities. While critics and protestors are common, many have also filed suit in an attempt to have NSA surveillance ruled unconstitutional, petitioned to publish more details, or introduced bills that could limit the existing rules.

  • Jacob Kastrenakes

    Dec 18, 2013

    Jacob Kastrenakes

    Zynga founder reportedly asked Obama to pardon Edward Snowden

    mark pincus
    mark pincus

    President Obama's meeting with a group of leading tech executives yesterday didn't go the way the White House wanted it to when the discussion turned from problems with Healthcare.gov to concerns over NSA surveillance. And according to CNN, one participant in the meeting brought up a subject that the White House was likely even less eager to discuss: pardoning Edward Snowden. It was Zynga founder Mark Pincus who reportedly made the suggestion to Obama, who responded that he could not do it.

    The Washington Post is also reporting that the exchange took place, though it doesn't identify who made the suggestion. For now, it appears, the White House would still prefer to try Snowden should he ever return to US soil. Though there's been plenty of government resistance to information revealed by his leaks, this week has brought about signs of potential change, including a court ruling calling the NSA's mass metadata collection unconstitutional and the NSA review panel recommending that the agency stop its collection as well.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Dec 17, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    Tech leaders reportedly challenge Obama over NSA at White House meeting

    A White House meeting meant to get technology executives' recommendations on Healthcare.gov was pushed towards a debate over surveillance, The Guardian reports. Sources from the meeting, which included Apple's Tim Cook, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Google's Eric Schmidt among others, say that the White House declared it would focus on the insurance site. "That is not going to happen," one executive reportedly responded. "We are there to talk about the NSA."

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  • Adi Robertson

    Dec 16, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    Federal judge rules NSA's bulk phone record collection likely unconstitutional

    A US district court has ruled that the NSA's bulk collection of phone records is likely unconstitutional. Today, Judge Richard Leon granted a preliminary injunction to Verizon customers Larry Klayman and Charles Strange, saying that they were suffering harm from having his records collected and that he had made a strong case that the NSA's secret court orders, which require carriers to provide metadata on virtually all US phone calls, were likely to violate the fourth amendment. Leon ordered the government to cease collecting any metadata from the plaintiffs and destroy any that remained in surveillance databases. Practically speaking, that order doesn't change much, since that order has been delayed to allow the government time to file an appeal. But his decision also, vitally, allows the case to proceed.

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  • Chris Ziegler

    Dec 14, 2013

    Chris Ziegler

    ACLU blasts NSA surveillance with video featuring creepy Santas

    ACLU NSA parody
    ACLU NSA parody

    Few organizations have been more vocal or more active in the fight against the NSA's far-reaching surveillance programs this year than the American Civil Liberties Union, and it's driving the point home this month with a holiday-themed parody. "The NSA is Coming to Town" is exactly what it sounds like: a darkly comedic remix of the Christmas classic "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," featuring NSA agents dressed up as Santas wreaking havoc through the streets of New York City. The climax of the video comes around the 1:20 mark as an unsuspecting citizen grows tired of a sunglass-wearing St. Nick taking photos of his phone's screen, slaps the camera out of his hand, and briskly walks away.

    The video is a part of the ACLU's campaign to raise 50,000 signatures to its petition to Congress demanding the curtailing of the NSA's pervasive spying, which has grown far creepier than a parkouring Santa with a telephoto lens ever could.

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  • Sam Byford

    Dec 9, 2013

    Sam Byford

    Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others launch campaign for NSA reform

    NSA panopticon red
    NSA panopticon red

    Eight of the biggest companies in technology have united to speak out against the NSA's leaked surveillance programs and demand sweeping reforms. AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo have all signed a letter to President Obama and Congress that The Hill reports will run in national print ads on Monday.

    "We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens," begins the letter. "But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide." The letter also appears on a new website, Reform Government Surveillance, which further outlines the group's positions.

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  • United Nations counterterrorism official launches investigation into NSA surveillance

    United Nations (STOCK)
    United Nations (STOCK)

    The United Nations senior counterterrorism official is launching an investigation into the surveillance activities of both the United States' and the United Kingdom's intelligence agencies. UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson said that he would be initiating an investigation into both the NSA and GCHQ in an op-ed published in the Guardian today. Emmerson writes that he's identified five areas of contention worth considering: whether Snowden should be given the legal protections of a whistleblower, whether his leaks damaged US or UK national security, whether his leaks show the need for surveillance overhaul, whether British parliament was misled about the intrusiveness of surveillance, and whether British parliament's current intelligence oversight system is thorough enough.

    Following the investigation, Emmerson will deliver a series of recommendations to the UN general assembly next fall. "These questions are too important for the UN to ignore," Emmerson writes. He notes that there are several other issues at hand beyond the five specifically identified, including how a government contractor — not even a direct US government employee — was able to acquire such sensitive information. Emmerson has been critical of other United States' policies lately, having issued a UN report stating that the US should detail civilian casualties by drones.

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  • Kwame Opam

    Nov 27, 2013

    Kwame Opam

    Senators pen New York Times op-ed calling for an immediate end to NSA surveillance

    capitol-dome-twilight
    capitol-dome-twilight

    Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Mark Udall (D-CO), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), all members of the US Select Committee on Intelligence, have come out time after time as outspoken voices in the ongoing NSA surveillance scandal. Only last week, the trio expressed their disappointment with the agency's tracking program, and backed an EFF-led lawsuit that aims to put an end to the surveillance. Now, in a New York Times op-ed, the group again called for an end to all indiscriminate collection of the American public's data, stating that the trust lost by the spying program can be rebuilt.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Nov 22, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    Judge grills ACLU and Department of Justice in first NSA surveillance suit hearing

    court house
    court house

    The ACLU and Department of Justice sparred in court for the first time today over a lawsuit questioning the intelligence community's right to collect virtually all US phone records under counterterrorism laws. This morning, New York District Judge William H. Pauley III heard oral arguments for ACLU v. Clapper, a constitutional challenge to how the NSA interprets a controversial provision of the Patriot Act. Section 215, as it's known, lets intelligence authorities request "any tangible things" that are relevant in a foreign intelligence investigation.

    In practice, it's used by the NSA to request phone records from all major telecoms and store them in a database, which is then searched for potential links between terrorists. But what the Obama administration sees as business as usual, the ACLU believes is an incredibly broad reading that violates free speech and subjects all Americans to unconstitutional searches. In response, it's asking for the court to stop the NSA from collecting any ACLU phone records while a full trial proceeds.

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  • Nov 20, 2013

    Vlad Savov

    Senators back lawsuit against NSA: 'no evidence' that bulk phone spying helps national security

    HTC Windows Phone 8x
    HTC Windows Phone 8x

    A trio of Democrat Senators sitting on the US Select Committee on Intelligence has expressed its disapproval of the NSA's bulk surveillance of US citizens' phone calls. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado, and Martin Heinrich from New Mexico all agree — having reviewed confidential information that their Committee status grants them access to — that the mass invasion of privacy is not justified by the intel gained from it. In their own words, they "have seen no evidence that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records ... is uniquely necessary to the national security of the United States."

    That directly contradicts the arguments made in support of the NSA's tracking program, which keeps logs of who you call, when, and for how long (though not of the actual content of the conversation). Relying on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the widespread practice has habitually been justified on the grounds that it provides material important to thwarting terrorist activities within the country. The amicus brief filed by the three Senators is in support of a lawsuit led by the EFF that aims to put a stop to the NSA's undiscriminating surveillance, arguing that more targeted measures would produce equivalent or better intelligence results without impinging on the civil rights of the American population.

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  • Dieter Bohn

    Nov 1, 2013

    Dieter Bohn

    Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others urge Congress to enact NSA reforms

    nsa (chris hardle flickr)
    nsa (chris hardle flickr)

    Much as they did a month ago with a previous bill, several tech giants have signed on to an open letter in support of the recently-introduced USA Freedom Act. AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo all endorsed the bill, which would limit the FISA rules the NSA currently uses to justify bulk collection of data. The letter focuses primarily on the issue of transparency, namely allowing these companies to disclose more information about what data the government has requested of them. Each company has taken a slightly different path in trying to get the government to change its policies surrounding this kind of transparency — but aligning together behind this bill could be a good sign that it could pass, especially since it appears to enjoy broad bipartisan support on the hill.

    However, the letter also goes a step beyond the simple transparency issue, calling for "substantial enhancements to privacy protections and appropriate oversight and accountability mechanisms" for government surveillance. Although the letter doesn't specify exactly what those protections should be, it's an important step for these companies to push beyond asking for simple "transparency."

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  • Russell Brandom

    Oct 29, 2013

    Russell Brandom

    Can the Freedom Act pacify the surveillance danger of the Patriot Act?

    Senator Patrick Leahy
    Senator Patrick Leahy

    A new NSA reform bill dubbed The USA Freedom Act was introduced today into both the House and Senate, co-sponsored by longtime privacy advocate Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), co-author of the Patriot Act. "The government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act are far broader than the American people previously understood," Leahy said in a prepared statement. "Modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough."

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  • Adi Robertson

    Oct 28, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    US says it will use secret surveillance evidence in court, opening door for ACLU challenge

    Supreme Court 3 (Verge Stock)
    Supreme Court 3 (Verge Stock)

    The United States has declared that it will use evidence from warrantless surveillance to pursue a man accused of aiding terrorists, another step towards a potential challenge to the FISA Amendments Act. A notice posted by The New York Times confirms the government's intention to prosecute Jamshid Muhtorov, charged with supporting and attempting to join the Islamic Jihad Union, using evidence obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Specifically, the notice points to Section 702, which has been used to justify the NSA and FBI's internet surveillance program.

    The notification comes because of a decision earlier in October, after a debate over whether the government was required to notify criminal defendants if they were being prosecuted based on warrantless wiretaps. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr. said there was no legal justification to keep this information secret, despite the fact that the Justice Department had always done so. A previous filing in Muhtorov's case stated that the FBI had collected email and phone communications before going to the courts, and now it's confirmed that some of this will be used in the trial.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Oct 28, 2013

    Russell Brandom

    Spycraft: how do we fix a broken NSA?

    ideal NSA
    ideal NSA

    This Saturday, thousands of people took to the streets of Washington DC to protest NSA surveillance at a rally organized by the aptly named group, Stop Watching Us. Political groups ranging from Occupy Wall Street–NYC to Edward Koch's FreedomWorks signed on to the rally, armed with more information than has ever been available before. NSA leaker Edward Snowden was there — at least in spirit — through a prepared statement read by rally leaders. "This is about the unconstitutional, unethical, and immoral actions of the modern-day surveillance state," the statement said.

    The outrage is clear, but four months after Snowden’s initial leaks surfaced, we still don’t know where that outrage might take us — or if it will bring about any change at all. Some level of state surveillance is necessary for an effective intelligence service, and few are advocating a wholesale ban on intelligence gathering, so how can we manage these agencies in a way that respects privacy? If reform succeeds, what do we want the NSA to look like?

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  • Jacob Kastrenakes

    Oct 25, 2013

    Jacob Kastrenakes

    European leaders push back against NSA surveillance at the UN and Washington

    United Nations (STOCK)
    United Nations (STOCK)

    Separately, a group of leaders from the European Union will be meeting in Washington next week to discuss and investigate allegations against the NSA. On Monday, the nine EU delegates will meet with representatives from the Federal Trade Commission and the Departments of Homeland Security, Treasury, Commerce, and State. On Tuesday, they'll meet with members of Congress.

    "A key priority for this inquiry is to gather all relevant information and evidence from US sources, which is why this fact-finding delegation to Washington is so important," Claude Moraes, the delegation's leader, says in a statement. "We will have the opportunity to discuss directly with US counterparts the alleged surveillance activities of US authorities and any impact they have in terms of EU citizens' fundamental right to privacy."

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  • Nathan Ingraham

    Oct 2, 2013

    Nathan Ingraham

    Justice Department says tech companies would help terrorists by sharing national security orders

    justice-building-federal-government
    justice-building-federal-government

    Major tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and many others have been pressuring the White House and Congress for more transparency around government requests to collect user data, but today the US Justice Department indicated its not willing to pull back its shroud of secrecy just yet. According to papers filed with the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) , the Justice Department says that it opposes requests from technology companies to reveal more information to the public about user data requests because it believes it would hurt national security.

    The rationale for keeping these requests secret boils down to the government having the authority to continue doing so, as well as the belief that the companies requesting these disclosures don't really know how much potential damage increased transparency would do. A section of the FISA response notes that "if our adversaries know which platforms the Government does not surveil, they can communicate over those platforms when, for example, planning a terrorist attack or the theft of state secrets." There's also a common "slippery slope" argument — if FISA begins granting these requests for a few companies, they might be obligated to do so for all the other companies that make such transparency requests.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Oct 1, 2013

    Russell Brandom

    Can a new round of NSA transparency bills make it through Congress?

    Capitol-dome-congress
    Capitol-dome-congress

    In July, the US House of Representatives came within 12 votes of defunding NSA surveillance in a sweeping amendment vote that caught much of Washington by surprise. It was a broad stroke, designed more as a statement than sustainable legislation, but it sent a clear message: Congress is ready to take on the NSA. Or at least they're ready to talk about it.

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  • Sean Hollister

    Sep 26, 2013

    Sean Hollister

    New bill seeks to outlaw bulk surveillance, shine light on secret FISA court system

    senators 640
    senators 640

    Following public outcry about the US government's controversial domestic surveillance programs, members of Congress have rushed to propose solutions. Now, four senators have combined a number of those ideas into a single piece of proposed legislation that would prohibit several questionable practices that US government agencies use, including the bulk collection of US communications without a warrant. The bill would also notably appoint an independent "constitutional advocate," whose job would be to attend the secret FISA court and challenge the government when it seeks to spy in ways that might interfere with the US constitution.

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  • Jeff Blagdon

    Sep 20, 2013

    Jeff Blagdon

    RSA tells developers to stop using encryption with suspected NSA backdoor

    Earlier this month, reports about the NSA’s efforts to crack or otherwise circumvent the encryption protocols commonly used to securely transmit web traffic were released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, ending up in a widely-circulated New York Times report. Those concerns aside, many have long suspected that the NSA engineered vulnerabilities in a 2006 standard allowing it to more easily break common encryption schemes, and the US federal agency responsible for recommending cybersecurity standards said that it would be reopening discussions around the contentious algorithm. As a result, network security firm RSA is telling its developers to stay away from the standard altogether.

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  • Russell Brandom

    Sep 18, 2013

    Russell Brandom

    LinkedIn asks to disclose NSA data requests, says secrecy 'threatens the entire internet'

    Linkedin dropcloth
    Linkedin dropcloth

    So far, LinkedIn has mostly stayed out of the fight for more NSA disclosure, but yesterday they jumped into the fray, filing a brief to the FISA court demanding the right to report government data requests. It's similar to lawsuits undertaken by Microsoft and Google in the wake of PRISM revelations, but notable because, unlike those companies, LinkedIn has yet to be directly implicated in any leaked documents.

    The core of the complaint is the gag orders that frequently accompany FISA requests and national security letters. Unlike a standard warrant, LinkedIn is prohibited from disclosing even aggregate data about the quantity of requests. LinkedIn already publishes a transparency report, but because of pre-existing gag orders, it's prohibited from saying how many national-security-related requests its received. In the brief, LinkedIn argues that this creates a potential breach of trust with users, and "this potential erosion of user trust threatens the entire Internet and technology sector." As with previous requests, the FISA court has yet to publicly respond.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Sep 12, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    Senate committee passes media shield bill, but who counts as a real journalist?

    Capitol-dome-congress
    Capitol-dome-congress

    Even before the NSA revelations that consumed the summer of 2013, the Obama administration was under fire for tapping the phones of Associated Press journalists in an attempt to find their sources. In the aftermath, the White House suggested reintroducing a 2009 media shield bill proposed by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY). Months later, The Huffington Post reports that Schumer's bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Congress has had to deal with a difficult, politically charged question: who counts as a journalist worthy of protection?

    The question is one of the things that derailed the bill on its first run though Congress. Schumer's bill would add a layer of protection between journalists and government court orders, requiring a judge to decide that an order was narrowly tailored and based on a need that couldn't be met any other way before approving it. When WikiLeaks and several newspapers began publishing news from diplomatic cables provided by Chelsea Manning, though, the tide turned against journalists and whistleblowers.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Sep 9, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    Facebook and Yahoo join call for more government transparency in new lawsuits

    Mark Zuckerberg Facebook Stock
    Mark Zuckerberg Facebook Stock

    Facebook and Yahoo have become the latest tech companies to ask the FISA court for permission to publish more detailed data on the government's requests for user information. In separate posts on their respective sites, the two companies announced that they had filed petitions similar to those already put forward by Google and Microsoft. "In recent weeks, it has become clear that the dialogue with the US government that produced some additional transparency at the outset is at this point unlikely to result in more progress," wrote Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch. Google has also submitted an amended version of its lawsuit, and it notes that it's one of the companies meeting with Obama's surveillance review panel.

    Shortly after leaked documents revealed that the US was operating a broad online surveillance program, tech companies began asking for permission to release hard numbers about what was being collected. Facebook and Microsoft soon reached a deal that would allow them to release estimates of total government requests, but not details about whether those requests were made by the NSA or other agencies. Google, however, called the government's offer "a step back for users," opting instead to petition the court for permission to break out FISA requests. Microsoft followed suit, and the two began a series of ultimately fruitless discussions with the Department of Justice. In late August, both decided to continue their lawsuits.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Aug 30, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    Microsoft moves forward with NSA surveillance lawsuit after government negotiations stall

    Microsoft logo stock 2
    Microsoft logo stock 2

    Microsoft is proceeding with a lawsuit that it hopes will let it publish court orders made under the FISA surveillance law. In late June, the company filed a motion with the court that oversees much NSA surveillance, asking for permission to publish the number of secret court orders it received under the FISA Amendments Act. Since then, general counsel Brad Smith says Microsoft has spoken with the Department of Justice six times and extended the deadline for reply to the suit. But today, he says the parties failed to reach an agreement, leaving Microsoft no choice but to continue with the suit. A document published by ZDNet shows the deadline for government response is later today.

    "While we appreciate the good faith and earnest efforts by the capable government lawyers with whom we negotiated, we are disappointed that these negotiations ended in failure," says Smith. Interestingly, though, Microsoft seems to want more than it indicated in its original court filing. The court motion asks for permission to publish "aggregate statistics concerning any orders and/or directives" that Microsoft received under the FISA Amendments Act. But in his post, Smith says that simply publishing numbers isn't enough.

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  • Adi Robertson

    Aug 30, 2013

    Adi Robertson

    The ACLU wages a long-shot legal battle against NSA surveillance

    Supreme Court 5 (Verge Stock)
    Supreme Court 5 (Verge Stock)

    Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties moved forward with a lawsuit filed in June, asking a New York court to stop the NSA from gathering any information from its phone lines while it attempts to end the agency’s mass metadata collection. "Calling patterns can reveal when we are awake and asleep," wrote Princeton professor Edward Felten in a briefing. "Our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the Sabbath, or makes a large number of calls on Christmas Day; our work habits and our social aptitude; the number of friends we have; and even our civil and political affiliations." Felten and the ACLU are trying to revive a case that Amnesty International lost earlier this year, hoping that the evidence is stronger this time around. But while we now know much more about the government’s surveillance efforts, the odds of convincing a court that anything’s changed are still slim indeed.

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  • Congressional bill would clear companies to vaguely disclose US surveillance requests

    capitoldome-congress
    capitoldome-congress

    At this point, it's illegal for companies to disclose that they've specifically received FISA orders, or what those demands consist of. The bill wouldn't bring a halt to FISA requests and it wouldn't give companies the ability to reject such government orders. What the bill would do is give companies the option of disclosing how many times the government has asked them for user data and how many users have been affected — that's about it. The bill doesn't require that companies disclose which government agency is asking for what information, or whether a request was made under a FISA order or some other surveillance law.

    Furthermore, the bill doesn't mandate that companies provide exact request or user numbers, what sort of data is being requested, or even what spying program the government plans to use the data for. Rather, the bill says that companies would be able to report vague estimated numbers in quarterly, annual, or semi-annual timeframes. Again, all of this would be optional if the bill is passed into law. The Surveillance Order Reporting Act is backed by Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Justin Amash (R-MI), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), John Conyers (D-MI), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Ted Poe (R-TX), and Jared Polis (D-CO). Similar bills have been introduced in the Senate. And a number of companies reportedly involved in PRISM — including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft — have called on lawmakers to pass laws that allow them to be more transparent about their roles in government surveillance programs.

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  • Janus Kopfstein

    Jul 25, 2013

    Janus Kopfstein

    House narrowly defeats NSA amendment, allowing agency to keep spying on Americans

    capitoldome
    capitoldome

    After an unexpected and widely-supported bipartisan effort to rein in the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance powers, an amendment which would have stopped the agency from collecting the phone records of millions of Americans was narrowly defeated in a 205 to 217 vote in the House of Representatives.

    Led by Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, the amendment was attached to an annual defense budget bill, seeking to defund the NSA's "ongoing, daily" collection of Americans' phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The effort had gathered an impressive outpouring of support from both sides of the aisle after passing the House Rules Committee on Monday, causing panicked responses from the Obama administration and the intelligence community.

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