US Rep. Johnson Defends Support for Massive NSA Spying on US Citizens (UPDATE 1)
(APN) ATLANTA — Three Democratic Members of US Congress representing areas in Metro Atlanta–including US Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)–voted against an amendment that would have de-funded what many advocacy organizations are calling an illegal and unconstitutional program by the National Security Administration (NSA), which collects telephonic metadata of all US residents without any probable cause.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
However, whistleblower and human rights activist Edward Snowden recently revealed that the NSA has been collecting telephone call records from all US residents, storing them, and then deciding when to retrieve and use the information in what the NSA claims to be terrorism-related inquiries. However, the agency–not a federal court–decides when to use the information, and the collection and storage of the information takes place on a massive, indiscriminate scale.
Yesterday, July 24, 2013, US Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA), David Scott (D-GA), and Sanford Bishop (D-GA) each voted nay against the amendment. One other Georgia Democrat, US Rep. John Barrow (D-GA), who represents the Augusta area, also voted nay.
US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was the only Georgia Democrat to support the amendment.
Lewis was joined by a handful of Georgia Republicans in supporting the amendment, which goes to show that, at least in Georgia, there are more Republicans than Democrats in Congress who are willing to take stands to protect civil liberties, privacy, and the Constitution of the US.
US Reps. Paul Broun (R-GA), Tom Graves (R-GA), Jack Kingston (R-GA), and Tom Price (R-GA) all voted in favor of the amendment. US Reps. Doug Collins (R-GA), Phil Gingrey (R-GA), Austin Scott (R-GA), and Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), however, voted against.
The amendment was offered by a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress, including US Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), John Conyers (D-MI), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), and Jared Polis (D-CO).
US Rep. Johnson participated in an hour-long interview with Atlanta Progressive News to explain his vote.
“The data collection of telephone metadata has resulted in the saving of American lives due to imminent terrorist threats that have been revealed by use of the program,” Johnson told APN.
“The program, under which the data is collected, which is 215 of the Patriot Act, is over-broad, and the relevance standard needs to be tightened. The Amash amendment did not do that, it simply de-funded the program itself,” Johnson said.
“Being a member of the Armed Services Cmte, I receive regularly classified briefings that enable me… to view that program from a different – from a security standpoint – and so, I believe that there is usefulness in the collection of the metadata,” Johnson said.
“Yeah I think the collection of metadata by the government is constitutional. There is no Fourth Amendment right to privacy with respect to telephone metadata. It is information owned in possession of the telephone service providers, and so it is not a piece of property that one has a privacy interest in,” Johnson said.
“When the US is spying abroad on non-American citizens – they’re just spying as other counties do on us – there’s no right a foreign subject has in a foreign land when it comes to US surveillance or monitoring or spying. So that’s what governments do, and they do it for various purposes, commercial as well as security,” Johnson said.
“I think that relevance is too loose a standard, that enables the government to go in and ask for anything – I think there should be a more restrictive as opposed to a simple relevance standard. What that standard is – I’m willing to listen to the proposals – I don’t think there have been many put out there, because the Patriot Act has been authorized in such a hasty way,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that he believes the Patriot Act should enumerate specifically which programs the telephone metadata can be used for, instead of leaving it up to the administration to decide.
“The fact we’re collecting all telephone metadata and storing it for a period of five years is a program that should not have been classified – it should have been made known and the case made for why the intelligence community needs that information. Knowing those needs myself, yes, I think it’s a prudent exercise in protecting Americans from terrorism, that the government has a depository of information that it can back to access, if and when there’s a reasonable articulable suspicion,” Johnson said.
Will Adams, a spokesman for Rep. Amash, told APN that the Congressman pushed for yesterday’s up-or-down vote before Congress goes on a six week recess, in order to force each Member to go on the record.
That way, Members of Congress will have to face voters in their Districts, and those who opposed the amendment will have to explain to their voters why they knowingly chose to continue to fund a program that the NSA is using to apparently violate their constitutional rights.
In a fact sheet that Amash circulated to Members of Congress, he asked, “As you go home for August recess, you will be asked: Did you oppose the suspicionless collection of every American’s phone records? When you had the chance to stand up for Americans’ privacy, did you?”
The White House issued a statement on the amendment on July 23, 2013, attempting to dissuade Members of Congress from supporting the amendment.
“[W]e oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism tools. This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open, or deliberative process. 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,” the White House said.
Adams said he believes the White House statement was to blame for swinging the votes of several Democrats from yea to nay. He added that such a statement was extraordinarily rare, and that it was the first statement the President Barack Obama administration had made on any proposed US House amendment since he was sworn into office.
Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom–who, in working with Snowden, broke the news of numerous aspects of the previously-secret NSA programs–noted the irony of the White House’s statement.
“What a multi-level masterpiece of Orwellian political deceit that sentence is. The highly surgical Amash/Conyers amendment – which would eliminate a single, specific NSA program of indiscriminate domestic spying – is a ‘blunt approach,’ but the Obama NSA’s bulk, indiscriminate collection of all Americans’ telephone records is not a ‘blunt approach,’” Greenwald wrote.
“Even worse: Amash/Conyers – a House bill debated in public and then voted on in public – is not an ‘open or deliberative process,’ as opposed to the Obama administration’s secret spying activities and the secret court that blesses its secret interpretations of law, which is ‘open and deliberative.’ That anyone can write a statement like the one that came from the Obama White House without dying of shame, or giggles, is impressive,” he wrote.
In a House Judiciary Cmte hearing last week, US Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the author of the Patriot Act and its renewal, told the administration that when the controversial Patriot Act provision–known as the business records provision–expires and comes up for renewal, that unless the administration changes its ways, there would not be enough votes in the US House to renew the program.
However, yesterday’s vote introduces some modicum of doubt to Sensenbrenner’s assertion.
Johnson took issue with Sensenbrenner’s position on the Amash amendment given that Sensenbrenner helped rush the Patriot Act and its renewal through US Congress, voting down all amendments offered by Democrats upon party lines.
“You [Sensenbrenner] say they [the FISA Court] expanded it [the relevance standard] beyond imagination. That’s just bullshit,” Johnson told APN.
But Adams tells APN that he does not believe that yesterday’s vote will be predictive of future votes on the business records provision, such as the Patriot Act renewal in 2015, if it gets that far. He notes the vote took place without any Committee debate on the proposal, and that a similar proposal would be more likely to pass after a thorough Committee debate.
The White House also circulated a statement to Members of Congress with additional language about the amendment: “2) Amash/Conyers/Mulvaney/Polis/Massie Amendment – Bars the NSA and other agencies from using Section 215 of the Patriot Act (as codified by Section 501 of FISA) to collect records, including telephone call records, that pertain to persons who may be in communication with terrorist groups but are not already subject to an investigation under Section 215.”
However, Amash responded to these charges in his fact sheet.
“What steps would the government take to collect records if the Amash-Conyers amendment were enacted? The government would have to provide facts to the FISA court to show that there
are reasonable grounds to believe that the records sought (1) are relevant to an appropriately
authorized national security investigation and (2) pertain to the person (including any group or
corporation) under investigation,” Amash wrote.
“We know that the government can use that process effectively in its investigations because it
already does,” he wrote.
“This blanket intrusion into the private lives of American citizens is more than just an invasion of privacy, it is a dangerous precedent. Even in the name of public safety or national security, there is simply no need for the NSA to collect the phone records of virtually every single American,” US Rep. Conyers said in a mass email to supporters.
“No one should unknowingly have to give up their privacy – for any reason… Private citizens in our country are afforded the protections of a right to privacy. We cannot allow overwrought government programs to turn the United States into a surveillance state,” Conyers wrote.
The right-wing Campaign for Liberty; as well as progressive groups like Coalition for Grassroots Progress, Demand Progress, Democrats.com, and RootsAction are some organizations that asked their members to email or call Members of Congress to support passage of the Amash amendment.
Meanwhile, as previously reported by APN, several lawsuits challenging the telephony metadata NSA spying program are making their way through federal courts and the Supreme Court of the US, that may lead to judicial intervention on behalf of the Fourth Amendment, the First Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, and/or various federal statutes including the Patriot Act provisions.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article listed US Rep. Brown as voting both for and against the amendment, while Rep. Gingrey’s vote was not listed. The article has been corrected to only list Brown as voting in favor of the amendment, and to add that Gingrey voted against.