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Rep. Amash On Reining In NSA Surveillance

Jul 31, 2013

Republican Congressman Justin Amash, who represents Michigan’s 3rd district, is often called “the most defiant Republican in the House.”

He recently proposed and led the charge on the amendment that would have defunded the National Security Agency’s program of domestic surveillance.

That program was brought to light when Edward Snowden — the former N.S.A. contractor — leaked government documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

There may in fact be areas in which he has done something very harmful, but in other ways he’s been helpful by releasing this information.
–Rep. Justin Amash on Edward Snowden

Although Amash’s amendment narrowly lost, it had strong bipartisan support.

Amash is still pursing legislation that would curb the NSA’s ability to have such widespread authority to collect data on American citizens.

“Certainly, if you’re the government, you want to have as much information as possible,” Amash told Here & Now. “But we have a Constitution that already balances liberty and security. And the Constitution tells us we can’t collect this kind of information on Americans.”

The legislation he is trying to bring to the floor, the Liberty Act, would amend the Patriot Act to let the NSA only collect data on people who are under investigation. It would also provide more transparency in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) courts.

Although Snowden’s disclosure was the reason Congress found out about the NSA’s program, Amash has mixed feelings about him.

“There may in fact be areas in which he has done something very harmful, but in other ways he’s been helpful by releasing this information,” Amash said.

He does think there should be a legal way for people like Snowden to act on their beliefs.

“When we have people in government or contractors who feel they need to blow the whistle on something they believe is illegal or unconstitutional, we need better avenues for them to be able to do so,” Amash said. “Mr. Snowden could not have come to me, as a member of Congress, and told me about the program. That would have violated the law just as anything else would have.”


  • Justin Amash, Republican Congressman representing Michigan’s Third District.
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Today, the White House revealed the top secret order related to the NSA's controversial surveillance program. The order asked a company to turn over customer records to the government. It requested what's called metadata, which includes things like the caller and receiver's numbers and the time and duration of calls, but not the content of conversations. Today's release comes as new momentum is building in Washington to limit federal surveillance of Americans. Here is Minnesota Democrat Al Franken in the Senate today.

REPRESENTATIVE AL FRANKEN: The government has to give proper weight to both keeping America safe from terrorists and protecting Americans' privacy. But when almost everything about these programs is secret, and when the companies involved are under strict gag orders, the American public has no way of knowing whether we're getting that balance right.

HOBSON: Well, one of the lawmakers who is leading the effort for greater scrutiny of the NSA in the House of Representatives is Republican Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan. Congressman, welcome.

REPRESENTATIVE JUSTIN AMASH: Thanks for having me, Jeremy.

HOBSON: Well, have you seen what's been released today, and if so, what is your reaction?

AMASH: Well, I've seen some of the documents. I've only had the chance to skim the documents, and I'm going to spend some more time digging into it and finding out what's been actually released. But the more we're hearing from the NSA and from our government on these issues, the more frightening it becomes.

HOBSON: Do you think it was a good step that this stuff was released or too little too late?

AMASH: Well, I welcome the release of any documents. I think the government should release as much as possible while protecting the operation that they have, but we can't have secret laws. So anything that is pertaining to the interpretation of law should be available certainly to members of Congress and some summary forms should be available to the public.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about what you had proposed, to limit NSA surveillance. There was something that happened in Washington that's rare these days, which was a surprise that that vote narrowly was lost. Tell us about what you wanted to do.

AMASH: Well, our goal was to have a vote on this issue right now while people were concerned about it. The public, when I go back to my district, was telling me, look, you control the funding on this issue. If you don't think the NSA should be collecting these things, and we agree with you on that, then go defund them. So I decided that it was important to have that kind of vote. We had a lot of pressure to push back the vote to wait another two months, to wait another three months. And I felt, and many others felt, that that was wrong.

HOBSON: Who was that pressure coming from?

AMASH: We get pressure from the intelligence community, from the intelligence committee and from members of leadership, and certainly from the White House as well.

HOBSON: And what would your amendment have actually done?

AMASH: All the amendment would have done was return the Patriot Act to its original intent, which is to collect the phone records of people who are under investigation. Right now, the NSA collects the phone records of every single American without any suspicion. And that's far beyond what the Patriot Act was intended to do, and it's far beyond what the Fourth Amendment allows.

HOBSON: Now, the head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, has said that this data collection that we're talking about from phone and Internet use records has, quote, "Disrupted dozens of terrorist plots and thwarted over 50 terrorist events since 9/11." What do you say to that?

AMASH: Well, I'd say that they are conflating programs. Usually, when they talk about these things, if they're being precise, they say that this authority and other authorities, or this program and other programs have disrupted terrorist plots. They like to conflate the programs so that they continue the programs that aren't really as effective as they would like us to believe. I think they find this stuff useful because certainly, if you're the government, you want to have as much information as possible. But we have a constitution that already balances liberty and security, and the Constitution tells us that we can't collect this kind of information on every American. People have the right to be free to live their lives without being surveilled by government.

HOBSON: But the White House says that your amendment would have made the NSA essentially ineffective.

AMASH: Well, that's a ridiculous assertion. The NSA could continue to conduct operations under many other authorities or even if my amendment had passed. And in fact, Section 215, the authority that we were targeting would have still operated as intended under the Patriot Act. The only difference would have been that you can't collect information on a person who is not the subject of an investigation. And certainly, the American people and members of Congress believe that it's ridiculous to be collecting data on someone who is not actually under investigation.

HOBSON: So your amendment failed. And as you said, that was a moment when people were really paying attention to this and really cared about it. What happens now? Where do you go from here if you're trying to stop this NSA surveillance from happening?

AMASH: Well, Chairman Goodlatte is a great ally on this issue. He is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. One of the pieces of legislation that I've been working on is called the Liberty Act. I've teamed up with the ranking member on judiciary, Democratic Rep John Conyers. And that's the bill that would amend the Patriot Act so that you can only collect data on people who are under investigation, and it would also create greater transparency in the FISA court so that members of Congress can access those opinions and members of the public can have summaries of the law. Because you can't have secret law in a free society.

HOBSON: This is all out there in the open because of what Edward Snowden, this NSA contractor - former NSA contractor revealed. What do you think about him? Do you think he should be prosecuted? Do you think he should be lionized for what he did?

AMASH: I think we don't have the details of the situation. We don't have all the facts of the case. There may, in fact, be areas in which he's done something that is very harmful. But in other ways he has been helpful by releasing this information because members of Congress would not have known about it if not for those disclosures.

HOBSON: Well, what do you think about what happened yesterday with Bradley Manning, where he was acquitted of the aiding-the-enemy charge but convicted of several others?

AMASH: Yeah. It's a very different case, and it's a case I haven't followed very closely, frankly. I think what's important here is that when we have people in government or contractors who feel they need to blow the whistle on something that they believe is illegal or unconstitutional, we need better avenues for them to be to be able to do so. Right now it seems like they're only able to go to superiors who are operating within the same program.

And if those superiors aren't willing to listen to them, then they have very - very little ability to get the information out. For example, Mr. Snowden could not have come to me as a member of Congress and told me about the program. That would've violated the law just as anything else would have.

HOBSON: Congressman Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, thank you so much for talking with us.

AMASH: Thanks so much for having me on.

HOBSON: An issue in which your politics does not necessarily dictate what you think about it. We'd love to hear your thoughts at Up next, the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.