Close House Vote on Amash Amendment to Curb the NSA a Blow to the Security State

I happened to be on the phone with a political expert and insider when the result of the Amash amendment vote in the House of Representatives hit the news wires. While I am sure readers will be disappointed that this proposal to curb the NSA was defeated (see background here), the margin of victory for the bad guys was so stunningly narrow that it shows how badly support for the NSA has fallen even among its normal allies. When I read the vote results to my expert, 205 to 217, his reaction was uncharacteristically heated (he describes his degree of sang froid as somewhere between that of a Chinese sage and a dead dog):

Holy shit, this is huge. The NSA must be shitting in its pants. They got this close to beating them when the opponents had no time and no organizing, and the White House was throwing its weight behind this too.

From the New York Times:

The 205-to- 217 vote was far closer than expected and came after a brief but impassioned debate over a citizen’s right to privacy and the steps the government must take to protect national security. It was a rare instance in which a classified intelligence program was openly discussed on the House floor, and the issue led to some unusual coalitions. Conservative Republicans leery of what they see as Obama administration abuses of power teamed with liberal Democrats long opposed to intrusive intelligence programs. The Obama administration made common cause with the House Republican leadership to try to block it.

This describes some of the arm-twisting to get votes against the amendment:

On Tuesday, the director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander spent hours providing classified briefings to lawmakers about the program, and the White House took the unusual step of issuing a statement urging lawmakers not to approve it. On Wednesday, the retired Marine Corps General James L. Jones, who was Mr. Obama’s national security adviser from 2009-2010, added his name to an open letter in support of preserving the N.S.A. programs that had been signed by more than half a dozen top national-security officials from the Bush administration.

“Denying the NSA such access to data will leave the Nation at risk,” said the letter, which lawmakers and staffers who opposed Mr. Amash’s amendment circulated to undecided members.

This vote mattered. Greenwald has indicated that he has even more explosive material from Snowden that has yet to be released. The fat lady has not sung yet, and more revelations will give legislators and the public a chance to have another go at the agency’s brazen overreach.

Here’s the breakdown, again from the Times:

Screen shot 2013-07-24 at 8.42.27 PM

And the roll call follows (hat tip Deontos). If you care at all about this issue, call or write your Representative tomorrow and tell them, in no uncertain terms, what you think about their vote (as in “attaboy/girl” if they voted yes, and a rebuke if not).

Final Vote Results for Roll Call 412, July 24, 2013

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  1. from Mexico

    The house leader tried every trick in the book to avoid a roll call vote, but Amash wasn’t having it:

    Relavent floor proceedings:

    6:21 :43 P.M. H.R. 2397 POSTPONED PROCEEDINGS – At the conclusion of debate on the Amash amendment No. 100, the Chair put the question on adoption of the amendment and by voice vote, announced that the noes had prevailed. Mr. Amash demanded a recorded vote and the Chair postponed further proceedings on the question of adoption of the amendment until a time to be announced.

    6:53:20 P.M. H.R. 2397 On agreeing to the Amash amendment; Failed by recorded vote: (Roll no. 412).

    1. Doug Terpstra

      Paraphrasing Jimmy Carter, “Democracy isn’t broken; it’s fixed.” We can no longer take any vote in the Congressional wrestling ring at face value; everything is fixed. In all likelihood the voice No’s were an overwhelming majority, and the recorded vote was simply recalibrated for the usual incumbent political cover. The outcome was never really in doubt. The time may come, but we’re not there yet, not even close.

      Sorry for the cynicism, but “No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.” Lily Tomlin

  2. F. Beard

    Ha,ha! I guess Congresscritters (and/or their masters) have PLENTY to hide which isn’t surprising.

  3. Massinissa

    Obama wanted to shoot this shit down, but the majority of democrats supported the damn thing?

    Two questions.

    1. Where did Democrats find balls from?

    2. Why are the Republicans supporting a socialist muslim president? (to those who cant tell, yes, im being sarcastic)

  4. Jane Doe

    This vote was show.

    Over at Dkos, some of the people who voted against, were in deep blue areas, but magically they voted against here.

    That tells me that this was never going to happen.

      1. Roger Bigod

        Congresscritters have a habit of using their votes to avoid offending constituents, confident that they’ll be overridden. This happened with my worthless Senator Mary Landeieu on the Alito nomination. I called or wrote to ask her to vote against him. The letter from her office said she knew I’d be thrilled that she voted that way. But on the vote that counted, cloture, she voted for him, then switched on the formal note. I was disappointed in the vote, possibly the worst she’s made. But insulted by her assumption that I’m too stupid to see what she did. I plan on donating to her next opponent if she runs again, even if it’s David Duke.

        1. Jane Doe

          Yes, the leadership lined up votes to let those who needed the “good will” from voters to appear pro- 4th Amend/pro-privacy in their vote for the bill, while assuring its defeat of the bill overall. The real earth quake will be when something like this passes. Not just comes up for a vote.

          1. C

            I’m not so sure it was a complete sham. When they orchestrate votes, and they do, it is never this close or this risky. Moreover the leadership went out of its way to cut down the time for debate and, as other commenters have noted sought to avoid a roll-call vote entirely.

            The fact that it got this close at all despite public opposition from the Security State, the President, and the House and Senate Leadership is, in and of itself, a blow. It says that the support they like to assume when wrapping their asses with the flag isn’t really there.

            Now the issue is how to put pressure on the “leaders” like Boehner and Pelosi.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          No, no, you are REALLY not getting this.

          1. The White House and the security state stooges could not stop this going to a vote

          2. They had to engage in a very concerted effort to twist arms to get the vote they needed. And this was with NO organized paid for lobbying or big political interest groups on the other side

          3. That vote margin was in no way, shape, or form kabuki. They barely got this over the line. C above is correct. The guy I spoke to who is an old hand (on a first name basis with way too many Congresscritters, knows the gory details on tons of political fights) gasped when he heard the vote totals.

          I think this is at least in part the Congresscritters get that THEY personally are at risk as well as their big backers (which means they are also indirectly at risk, if their backers can be pressured, they can have their air supply cut off).

          1. Larry Barber

            Even if the vote here wasn’t kabuki, the process as a whole is. Even if by some miracle this was able to get past the Senate and signed by Obama (fat chance of that), the NSA would simply ignore it. In addition to everything they do being highly classified, they are accomplished liars, when they care to be, but they’ve gotten to the point where they don’t even care if their lies are obvious. I just saw a story where they claimed to not have the technology to search through their own emails. This was in response to a FOIA request, which was, predictably, rejected. The NSA and the rest of the (in)security apparatus cannot be reformed, it can only be abolished.

          2. Howard Beale IV

            Still-it failed, even in its extremely narrowed scope.

            Now let’s assume for the sake of argument it passed – what would stop the funds to keep the beast alive moving from one side of a open ledger to a black one?

        3. Richard Kline

          I have no clear idea of the motivation of those in Congress voting to slash funding to rein in the NSA, in part because the factions and their motivations are diverse. Some may be genuinely offended at an intrusive security state. Some may be genuinely concerned about the now fully evident absence of even a shred of oversight to the process, and the flagrant behavior which that condition has engendered. Some may be sniffing the malodour of their constituents. Some see it as an excellent opportunity to throw mud on Barack Obama which will stick.

          What has stood out for me in the process to bring this vote forward and on record are two points. The first is that from Snowden’s first revelations to the present time, neither the Administratrion nor the arch securacrats have offered even a figleaf of effective argument regarding why such massive data surveillance is in any way necessary or ever useful. The ‘We’ve stopped X plots’ with no specifics ring as the worst false coin, especially since no specifics are forthcoming. And even with that, much of the revealed surveillance has zero to do with Islamabombers (or whatever the slur of the hour is with regard to that element), so even the faulty bona fides given are not germane. There is simply no explanation other than, “We are the power and we like it.” That, in and of itself, is very, very disquieting. But the lack of effective defense in part explains how a back bench revolt could snowdenball [hadda say it!] into such a mess for Permanent Washington. For it is not on record that at least half of the bought and paid fors themselves don’t like these programs, which is a huge loss of political invincibility. The NSA and its minions will now have to actually _fight_ for their latitude and money for a time; their blank check is seriously impaired for the moment. That is far more important than the roll call itself.

          The second issue which stands out for me in this is that the entire affair is a stupendous _diplomatic_ blow to the US as a whole. The American public doesn’t really get how big a hit the image and standing of the country has taken, but in my view the impact is very substantial. I think that those in Congress, however, are better informed on this. And given that huge damage, the lack of damage control by the Administration, indeed the evident indifference to even needing to make a case internationally for US actions, seems to have cut to the quick not a few in Congress. The ‘American arrogance’ of the US in the face of the worst revelation of US malconduct in decades has to be extremely concerning to many in Congress, regardless of their vote, to the point where they didn’t feel that they _could_ wait for Barack Obama and his team of gerbil-sized megalomaniacs to get off their duffs and make like they actually care about our relationship with our putative allies and formal clients. So a move to cut back the NSA, particularly knowing that would never be allowed to happen regardless, is in a way a sop to foreign opinion which Bo Prez can’t be bothered to even fake.

          I’ll be interested indeed to see what all else ‘Running Man’ Ed Snowden has in his shoebox.

          1. Howard Beale IV

            Snowden is now the sideshow: Both Greenwald/Guardian and the WaPo allegedly have the entire set of ‘underacted slides’ (not to mention several encrypted copies of a ‘insurance archive’ scattered about cyberspace to be sprung should something untoward happens to Snowden.

            Now also remember that the US and Israel launched an undecalred offensive cyberwar against the SCADA systems in Iran that controlled their nuclear centrifuges.

            Months later, Saudi ARAMCO got whacked in retalitation, erasing hardrives on 30,000 workstations with a burinng US flag greeting the owners of those workstations.

            The war has already started. How much longer before we see A Taste of ARmageddon in reality?

    1. Francois T

      Over at Dkos, some of the people who voted against, were in deep blue areas, but magically they voted against here.

      This argument is dripping in weak sauce. Some congresspeople come from the era of “we need security or else!” and shall never, ever change.

      But we will change them…in November 2014 and beyond.

      Living in PA, Allyson Schwartz is now on my Shit List: she is gubernatiorial candidate. She’ll be sorry for rejecting Amash.

      1. Jane Doe

        I don’t believe in unicorns. The key problem is that the American public is passive so there’s no real consequences for bad votes. On top of that, most Americans either don’t or don’t want to understand how DC works. I simply don’t believe there was ever any chance of this bill passing. I look at who say no to it as a metric for whether it had a chance. Sure, its interesting it got this far, but then I think they had to have some appearance of balance.

        1. readerOfTeaLeaves

          People don’t need to know all the details about how DC works to understand their phones are being listened to in a fashion that many of us associate with the communist states of the 20th century.

          1. C

            Agreed, and they don’t need a poly-sci degree to realize that donating to some candidate or party that supports that is a stupid move.

        2. Doug Terpstra

          Bingo. It amazes that Charlie Brown always, always trusts Lucy to hold the football, time after time, where even aficionados of “pro” wrestling know better. The I-wanna-believe factor is simply overwhelming. Like boiling frogs and lambs to slaughter, Americans are hopelessly hopeful, completely gullible in swallowing propaganda. Consider the latest polls on Snowden.

          1. jrs

            “hopelessly hopeful” I like that. I find the psychology of this country so fricken bizarre and I was born here. The blind optimism, the happy go luckyness. It’s all pathological.

      2. kimsarah

        I’ve only seen her on TV a couple of times, and she seemed to me like a blue dog obamabot acting as a progressive while in sheep’s clothing. Of course anyone would look better than moron corbett. Poor Pennsylvanians will be stuck with a “lesser of two evils” election, which seems to be the best both parties can offer us these days.

    2. Z

      It’s news that there was probably very real substantial bipartisan support for the bill, but it wasn’t as close as the final tally indicates it was becoz more than a few of those yay voters in the house would have turned nay if their vote was needed to vote it down.


  5. Walter Map

    Don’t look now, but Congress just voted in favor of a totalitarian state.

    A Constitution rewritten to reflect current realities would be a radically different document. You can throw out nine of the first ten amendments, prohibitions against religious tests for office, and obligation to honor treaties. The power of the Executive is expanded to make the Legislative (renamed the Supreme Soviet) mostly ceremonial. Immunity to prosecution is extended to favored corporations, and the Preamble would replace those references to The People, with their socialist tone, in favor of something about the inviolability of profit optimization.

    Civilization was already in grave danger, but this makes its discomfiture a matter of official global policy. What makes it so troubling is that these people knew exactly what they were voting for.

    Back in the US
    Back in the US
    Back in the USSR!

    1. Lambert Strether

      I’m a little more optimistic. Sounds like the days “Because terror” are gone.

      Adding… It’s either constituent pressure… Or the Congress critters finally understood the water had reached their own necks (or both). Either way, it wasn’t organizing by the talking shops on either side of the aisle, which the political class must really hate.

      1. ScottS

        Well, the Ayes certainly are in the reality-based US (as opposed to Cheney’s “we create our own reality” consensus). They’ve seen what the NSA has done to Spitzer through the FBI. They know whom the “security” apparatus is aimed at. Pols who don’t toe the line will find themselves on the wrong end of “security” like Patreus, with the FBI snooping through their Gmail drafts box.

        There are 205 House reps who are outer party members and know it, and 217 who are inner party members, people who think they are inner party members, and useful idiots who believe the NSA has anything to do with terrorism.

        1. C

          I suspect that more than a few of the Outer Party members have also just realized this. Many of Snowden’s revelations have revealed things not just to us but to members of congress who probably thought that they were “in the know” but now realize just how much they’ve been played.

          1. LucyLulu

            Yes, and I suspect their anger at being left out of the loop is largely responsible for the Congressional backlash. Never mind if skipping briefings and not reading documents provided was largely responsible for their ignorance, how dare the NSA not keep them fully informed.

            Whatever the reason, let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

    2. Jim Haygood

      What Walter Map just described is the unwritten, de facto constitution. No need to vote on it; it’s already in effect via the PATROIT Act, the FISA Amendments Act, and other enabling legislation for the preservation of the reich.

      While one hopes that Yves’ political expert is correct, a much more common result is that programs in Washington soldier on regardless of unpopularity and opposition.

      Remember how House Speaker-elect Robert Livingston resigned on live TV during the Clinton impeachment debate? Backed to the wall, the NSA doubtless could dish enough dirt to create a hundred Bob Livingstons, a la carte.

      If you want a revolution in government, don’t fantasize it being led by 101 poodles using the Twilight Bark to summon aid. That only happens in Disney cartoons.

    3. LucyLulu

      And to further add to Walter’s new Constitution, we have a branch of the judicial system granted powers to create (secret) legislation.

    1. C

      Well he still has time to be a brave leader and appoint that down-to-earth outsider Larry Summers to be Fed Chair :)

    2. Massinissa

      You think it might work if he gives up the Democratic party entirely and tries to court Republicans to get everything done?

      Yeah, probably not, but if any Dem could do that, it would be Obama.

  6. Jackrabbit

    Some are saying that some of the ‘yea’ votes include some that would’ve voted ‘nay’ if they thought the amendment would actually pass. I’m not so sure that is the case here.

    As Yves explained, there was tremendous effort to shut down this vote. But in addition, TPTB have tried very hard to sweep the nsa spying fiasco under the rug. 205 votes up-ends that effort. 205 votes keeps this issue alive and kicking. 205 votes heartens those who object to pervasive spying and strengthens efforts to end it.

    Thus, I’m inclined to believe the strategic voting went to the ‘nay’ vote instead. It just makes more sense:
    1) Many who voted ‘nay’ were likely willing to accept the logic of the party line: that shutting down the spying NOW would be a rash step. They also made a strategic calculation that:

    a) it was risky to incur the wrath of their party and the establishment at this time, and
    b) they would have a chance to revisit the issue one year from now – a few months before the 2014 mid-term elections; and THAT vote will is likely to be more important to them politically.

    1. LucyLulu

      This is the part I find so fascinating. Normally all legislation gets voted along party lines, unanimously or close to it. This vote was split on both sides of the aisle, with Republicans voting in favor of the White House position and Democrats bailing ship on Obama. It was hard to predict who would vote in support of the amendment and who’d vote against it. Congresscritters were even willing to go on record and publicly debate the bill. It was only defeated by 12 votes. There were 12 who didn’t vote.

      During a national security briefing of the Judiciary Committee last week the intelligence community was put on notice that if they didn’t rein in on the surveillance voluntarily Congress would revoke their authority. I think it was the Judiciary Chair that said that currently they didn’t have the votes to renew the Patriot Act in the House. With the exception of my representative, who appeared to have discussed his questions ahead of time with deputy AG to ensure maximum PR benefit, it was a thorough roasting of the NSA and DOJ. It did not appear to be kabuki theatre. They all looked pissed. Perhaps they’d listened to the Boiling Frogs piece with whistleblowers Russell Tice (NSA) and Sibel Edmonds (FBI) talking about surveillance of politicians being used to blackmail them into submission that Bev posted in comments a couple weeks ago.

      1. jrs

        Really the house Dems have been pretty good on civil libs and the house Reps horrible on it. Though that’s the overall vote break down I don’t know if the individual people switch places (more kabuki) or not. But still nothing actually changes, and the march to totalitarianism continues, even when things fail by merely narrow margins.

    2. Massinissa

      And note that the guy who made the amendment, is Justin Amash, a Republican.

      Tons of democrats supported a Republican proposal, against a Democratic president. Amazing.

      And the Republicans supported the so-called socialist muslim democratic president over a member of their own party.

      The world has gone upside down!

  7. LucyLulu

    NBC and WSJ just released a poll that said only 11% of Americans view Snowden in a positive light. I find these results hard to believe, even given the intensive smear campaign perpetrated by US media. Based on the people I know who are far from radical or even particularly politically inclined, and the comments I read on articles written, it seems his support is far greater, more who support than not. The 17 comments on the WSJ site seem to all agree.

    1. psychohistorian

      I think you underestimate the propaganda power of the current media. They will create that 11% reality out of thin air.

      Belief in American exceptionalism and the can do no wrong faith in our corporate/government leadership is stronger than Hitler’s control over the Germans….we won’t go down easy, we have most of the nukes and the way biggest MIC.

      The Cosmos probably won’t even burp when we extinguish ourselves from the gene pool.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I am too under the gun, but you need to read how the poll questions are worded. Every poll on Snowden that I’ve looked as so far has been biased, either subtly or crassly.

      Plus the fact that actual documents are being released and (for those paying attention) stuff like Morales’ plane being diverted has happened, the NSA story is finally starting to decouple from the Snowden story, so the Snowden polls are less and less germane.

      One of the Congresscritters last week actually said so in the hearing. Forget who it was but he said basically that he hated Snowden but then he completely ripped into the NSA dude.

    3. Ferrous Male

      Forgive the truncated styles, I’m not used to posting from a smartphone.
      Point 1: author is correct, only 11% of population supports him
      Point 2: strong opposition to Snowden significantly outclasses strong support
      Point 3: majority of public does not currently have a clear opinion of him
      Point 4: the poll only asks for an opinion about Snowden personally, and (as currently released, does not address NSA/PRISM/etc.

      Given the distribution of strong opinions, expect a world class PR campaign to move more fuzzy opinions in a negative direction.

  8. kimsarah

    I don’t know if Counterpunch knew about Wednesday night’s vote ahead of time when they ran this article Wednesday, but it was good timing. It’s called, “National Security State, Advent of Fascism: Obama’s Fanaticism Over Secrecy, Surveillance and Repression.”
    It looks at the actions leading up to now, strings them together, and makes some scary sense of it.

  9. psychohistorian

    I think Snowden needs to get somewhere other than Russia and release the rest of his information.

    We are not getting the results we want yet.

    What are the odds that Snowden makes it to another country? I would think that it would be a brilliant snub of the US to secretly move Snowden to his requested country of asylum…..both China and Russia would feel good about doing so.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Snowden has given a lot (all? most? ) to the Guardian. I don’t think he controls the timing of the release, but he and his ups and downs probably influence them (as in Greenwald I’m sure wants to preserver good relations but push comes to shove, the paper won’t let Snowden control the story. It is an independent journalistic enterprise, not a PR firm).

      Remember you had a royal birth in the UK this week. Bad time for a big new surveillance story. And my impression is they are pushing on the German angle due to the elections in Sept, that seems to be higher priority for the moment. They may be pushing on that now. And in the US, no point in releasing anything big from 3rd week of August till Labor Day.

      They seem also to want to catch the NSA guys in lies. That may also be leading them to bleed out the information.

  10. Bobito

    The administration got what it wanted. Shame on Obama and shame on the Democrats. I expect nothing less from the Republicans.

    1. Massinissa

      Im no Democrat, not for years, but youre being a bit harsh here: A solid majority (60%) of the Dems decided to buck the president on this. Especially surprising considering this is an ammendment created by a Republican.

  11. timotheus

    The collapse of bipartisan consensus on the security state seems to me the most significant aspect. Suddenly it is not red v. blue but Snooper State v. everyone. Also particularly delightful to see many Republicans get hit with the “because terror” attack line that they have done so much to promote. Will this mean we can have a real discussion at last?

    Also concur that it could signal the end of any significant achievements for Obama as he cannot keep the troops in line despite significant arm-twisting, not even to “save us from terrorism”. Remarkable.

  12. Skeptic

    Votes, shmotes, they are always close and almost always go the wrong way. Since it is a FOR SALE SYSTEM, they only need to spend the few extra bucks/perks/whatever to get the needed votes. “Hey, we need two votes, back up the $$$$ truck.” Smart pols are the ones who know when to holdout to get the best deal.

    These close, this time it’ll be different, votes happen over and over. Ireland, Cyprus, Greece, US TARP, Germany, etc. Same bad movie but the audience always seem to think there might be a different ending. Somehow, someway, they always seem to be able to buy those last votes of corrupt politicians. And folks are then surprised!

    Then, even if there is a negative vote, there is a DO-OVER. Ireland’s Referendum, US TARP, Greece, etc. Keep voting until we get the result we want.

    Then, if there is an actual law created, just violate it! Simple. Lots of laws preventing Bank Crimes but none enforced.

    The 1% have lots of options to corrupt and manipulate the system, voting is only one of them.

    1. HotFlash

      Well yes, and you see, the 1% is beginning to figure out that they are being spied on, too. Do you not think they will convey their displeasure to their personal congresscritter? And that we are seeing that in this vote?

    2. Jim Haygood

      ‘There is a DO-OVER. Keep voting until we get the result we want.’

      Precisely. And it is easy to forecast which non-negotiable issues produce do-overs: specifically, those which radically expand government power and control.

      For instance, ClintonCare failed in 1993 and Democats lost the House in 1994. Took 16 years for the do-over, but ObamaCare was pushed through with the same result (loss of the House: some modern-day Nathan Hales had to walk the plank for the ‘greater good’).

      Similarly, NSA spying debuted under the avuncular Donald Rumsfeld as Total Information Awareness. TIA was killed, but now has returned bigger and badder than ever as PRISM.

      Since PRISM is the ultimate enlargement of government control, it will receive as many reincarnations and do-overs as necessary. Yesterday’s little mutiny in the House was a regretable outburst, but order soon will be restored. /sarc

      1. LucyLulu

        NSA spying debuted decades before Rumsfeld. The Church Commission reined them in for ~25 years until 9/11 and the GWOT provided a convenient opening.

        If one looks at history, police state regimes never end well.

  13. tawal

    Thanks to Yves reporting, I learned about the Amash amendment. I emailed my congressperson asking him to support it. I bet my bottom dollar that I was the only one in his district that contacted him on this matter, as information on it in the US was woeful. Unsurprisingly, he voted NO (there is no opposition in the district).
    Guess I’ll have to look for more productive ways to effect change.

    1. LucyLulu

      Don’t know about others but this vote hit me by surprise. Irregardless, don’t know about your lawmakers but mine could care less what I think. I live in NC where the only blue that one can find is on the jerseys of the Tarheels and Devils. Our Neanderthals have passed legislation requiring voter ID (and specifying type, e.g. govt-issued employee ID? — not ok), to assess special tax on parents of college kids who register to vote, requiring polls all close promptly on voting days, even if people still waiting to vote (which of course, lines are only in poor minority districts), while restricting early voting, restricting domestic violence protection to married heterosexuals, and mandating middle school health teachers teach abortion causes future miscarriages and pre-term births (not true).

      My numerous calls and letters to senators and representatives have only served to get me on the NSA watch list, no doubt.

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