Ever since whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the fact that the National Security Agency has been engaging in widespread, warrantless spying on American citizens, civil liberties advocates have been pushing for Congress to pass restrictions on the program. At first, reformers rallied around the USA Freedom Act, a bill intended to terminate the NSA’s bulk collection of cell phone metadata and to bring transparency to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. However, last-minute backroom deals with the intelligence establishment weakened the bill so severely that early supporters and civil liberties proponents like Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) ultimately ended up voting against it.
However, late last night, Representatives Thomas Massie (R-KY), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) introduced an amendment to the 2015 Defense Appropriations Act that would restrict the NSA’s ability to perform warrantless backdoor searches of users’ data and would prohibit the agency from compelling online services to create workarounds that allow it to bypass encryption methods meant to protect sensitive information. The restrictions on warrantless backdoor searches would stop the NSA’s bulk collections of email content, search histories, and chat records, which are currently ongoing.
Zoe Lofgren originally told US News and World Report that she wasn’t certain that the amendment would pass. However, the bipartisan civil liberties coalition acted swiftly, mobilizing interest groups to push constituents to contact representatives and using parliamentary measures to bring the amendment to a vote immediately. Said Representative Massie of the effort, “It was to our benefit that it moved quickly without a lot of advance notice, because [opponents] didn’t have time to mount a disinformation campaign. We had just enough time to rally the outside groups and constituents, and they lacked just enough time to counteract that.”
Ultimately, the Republican-controlled House passed the amendment, with 293 voting in favor and 123 voting against. Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who was just elected House Majority Leader, opposed the measure in defiance of the majority of House members and his own party. In order to become law, the language must also be adopted by the Senate and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
This historic vote represents the first time that Congress has successfully passed serious restrictions on the NSA’s bulk collection of data on Americans following Edward Snowden’s revelations about the program. The amendment technically modifies section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which had been used “unconstitutionally,” according to the Electronic Freedom Foundation, to collect domestic data on American citizens. Language similar to the amendment had originally appeared in the USA Freedom Act before it was removed during negotiations. Though the amendment does not comprehensively solve all of the issues brought forward by Edward Snowden, civil liberties advocates are heralding this vote as a major victory and turning point in the battle to limit the NSA’s ongoing spying operations against American citizens.