US House votes to continue NSA's phone surveillance

Rep Justin Amash returns to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, 24 July 2013 Republican Justin Amash attached the amendment to a defence spending bill

The US House of Representatives has narrowly voted to continue collecting data on US phone calls, in the first legislative move on the programme.

In a 205-217 vote, lawmakers rejected an effort to restrict the National Security Agency's (NSA) ability to collect electronic information.

The NSA's chief had lobbied strongly against the proposed measure.

The vote saw an unusual coalition of conservatives and liberal Democrats join forces against the programme.

The details of the NSA dragnet were made public by Edward Snowden, a former contractor for America's electronic spying agency. He is now a fugitive, seeking asylum in Moscow.

'Fear'

The rejected amendment would have blocked funding for the NSA programme which gathers details of every call made by or to a US phone, unless the records were part of a specific investigation.

Start Quote

Have we forgot what happened on September 11?”

End Quote Mike Rogers House intelligence committee chairman

It was introduced by Michigan Republican Justin Amash, who warned during Wednesday's debate that the proposal's critics would "use the same tactic every government throughout history has used to justify its violation of rights: fear.

"They'll tell you that the government must violate the rights of the American people to protect us against those who hate our freedom."

Despite the White House's lobbying against the amendment, a majority of House Democrats - 111 - voted for it. Eighty-three Democrats voted against.

Among Republicans, 94 voted for the Amash amendment and 134 against.

'We've gone overboard'

Before Wednesday's vote there were fierce exchanges on the House floor during what was the first sustained legislative debate on the NSA's reach since Mr Snowden's revelations.

How the US collects phone records

File photo of woman on the phone

The National Security Agency (NSA) began collecting Americans' phone records in 2001, as part of far-reaching surveillance programmes launched by then-President George W Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

But the scope of the practice, continued under President Barack Obama, only became apparent in June when ex-CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified US surveillance files.

It emerged that a US secret court had ordered phone company Verizon to hand over to the NSA the phone records of tens of millions of American customers.

This information, known as metadata, includes the numbers of the originating and receiving phone, the call's duration, time, date and location (for mobiles, determined by which mobile signal towers relayed the call or text).

The contents of the conversation itself, however, are not covered, US intelligence officials say. The surveillance applies to calls placed within the US, and calls between the US and abroad.

"We've really gone overboard on the security side," said Democratic Representative Peter Welch of the surveillance, which is part of a classified $30bn (£19.5bn) intelligence budget.

But others said the practice was essential in America's efforts against terrorism.

"Have 12 years gone by and our memories faded so badly that we forgot what happened on September 11?" said Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee.

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, not usually noted for her support of President Obama, also backed the administration's stance.

"Let us not deal in false narratives," she said. "Let's deal in facts that will keep Americans safe."

But Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the original authors of the Bush-era Patriot Act, said "the time has come" to stop harvesting phone records.

On the eve of the vote, in a rare statement against a legislative amendment, the White House called the Amash proposal a "blunt approach" that would hamper US anti-terrorism efforts.

NSA director Gen Keith Alexander held separate, closed-door sessions with Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday to lobby them against the bill.

Another NSA surveillance programme, Prism, allows the agency to sweep up global internet usage data through nine major US-based providers.

The programmes' supporters say such surveillance has helped thwart at least 50 terror plots in 20 countries, including up to a dozen directed at the US.

Divided opinion in the US about the snooping was highlighted by a CBS News poll on Wednesday.

The survey found that 67% of Americans opposed the government's collection of phone records, but 52% said it was necessary to counter terrorism.

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