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Congress gearing up for another fight against NSA metadata collection

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Congress had the chance, in July, to gut one of the National Security Agency's programs of explicitly tracking Americans. A bill to limit those programs to the targets of specific investigations came within a dozen votes of passing in the House.

There's good reason to think that next time will be different.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who authored that earlier initiative, noted that his bill went at the NSA in a roundabout way. An amendment to an appropriations bill, it would have slashed funding for the agency's program of collecting telephone metadata—call times, durations, but not contents—of practically every American.

"This was an amendment to an appropriations bill, so it had to be written in a very particular way," Amash said on CNN Sunday. "I'm hopeful we'll have a way to amend some kind of policy legislation in the future."

The Amash Amendment failed, but, buoyed by a major campaign from privacy activists, it garnered a close final tally of 217-205.

On Wednesday, three Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), and ranking member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), condemned NSA spying in light of recently declassified reports of domestic privacy violations. 

"We must take appropriate legislative action to ensure that the government may not take advantage of existing authorities," the three said in a joint statement. It also recommended the passage of the proposed Libert-E Act. One of a plethora of NSA bills, the Libert-E Act would modify the Patriot Act to no longer allow bulk metadata collection.

Amash also told CNN that "I've certainly heard from a number of my colleagues, directly and through the media, that they feel differently about the amendment now, that if they had a second chance, yeah, they might have voted yes on it."

That sentiment probably comes from the fact that many in Congress didn't know what they were voting on. It was Amash's own office that discovered, three weeks later, that the House Intelligence Committee committed a major communications blunder in 2011. It didn't tell the newest members of the House about the program, despite instructions from the assistant Attorney General to do so. That meant nearly 100 representatives weren't aware of the program, which may have influenced how they voted on Amash’s proposal.

That information is now declassified, available to all of Congress and to the public at large, and that could be enough to win the handful of additional votes Amash and his allies need to change the way domestic surveillance is carried out in the U.S.

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III