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House votes to curb NSA scrutiny of Americans’ communications

First Published      Last Updated Jun 20 2014 03:06 pm

Washington • The House of Representatives late Thursday voted to bar the National Security Agency from looking for Americans' communications without a warrant within a database of emails and phone calls it gathers while targeting foreigners, a technique that critics have labeled a "backdoor search loophole."

By a 293-123 vote, the House approved the ban as an amendment to the 2015 defense appropriations act. A version of the proposal had been a component in the original version of the USA Freedom Act, legislation the House passed last month that was aimed at curbing NSA spying, but it had been stripped out in negotiations among congressional leaders.

The proposal has drawn opposition from security agencies and still has a long way to go before it would become law. But the chief sponsors of the provision - Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; and Thomas Massie, R-Ky. - celebrated the lopsided vote.

"There's no question Americans have become increasingly alarmed with the breadth of unwarranted government surveillance programs used to store and search their private data," they said in a joint statement. "By adopting this amendment, Congress can take a sure step toward shutting the back door on mass surveillance."

The amendment would impose new restrictions on how the security agency may gain access to Americans' emails and phone calls it collects without a warrant under the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. That law allows the NSA to gather phone calls and emails of noncitizens abroad, without a warrant, from operators of the domestic telecommunications network like AT&T and Verizon and from U.S. communications providers like Google and Yahoo.

The 2008 law, which legalized a form of the warrantless surveillance program the Bush administration secretly put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, enables the NSA to gather up large amounts of Americans' communications as well if the Americans are communicating with or about a foreign target.

Under current procedures, the agency is then able to search its database for Americans' phone numbers or email addresses to pull any such communications without any permission from a court.

The government has argued that since the communications were lawfully obtained, no further warrant or court order should be necessary. It has not said how often it has performed such searches.