The White House and congressional backers of the National Security Agency's surveillance program warn that ending the massive collection of phone records from millions of Americans would put the nation at risk.
With a high-stakes showdown vote looming in the House, White House press secretary Jay Carney issued an unusual, nighttime statement on the eve of Wednesday's vote. The measure by Representative Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan, would cancel statutory authority for the secret program, a move that Carney contended would "hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community's counterterrorism tools."
Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, made a last-minute trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to reject the measure in separate, closed-door sessions with Republicans and Democrats. Seven Republican committee chairmen issued a similar plea in a widely circulated letter to their colleagues.
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An unlikely coalition of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats says the program amounts to unfettered domestic spying on Americans. Amash and Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, are the chief sponsors of an amendment that would end the ability of the NSA to collect phone records and metadata under the USA Patriot Act unless it identifies an individual under investigation.
Amash said his measure tries to rein in the NSA's blanket authority. Responding to the White House statement, the congressman tweeted late Tuesday: "Pres Obama opposes my .NSA amendment, but American people overwhelmingly support it. Will your Rep stand with the WH or the Constitution?"
Republican leaders allowed the House to consider Amash's amendment to a $598.3 billion defence spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The vote on Wednesday would be the first time Congress has weighed in since former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked documents that revealed that the NSA had collected phone records, while a second NSA program forced major internet companies to turn over contents of communications to the government.
Russia's state news agency, meanwhile, said Wednesday that Snowden has been granted papers that allow him to leave the transit zone of Moscow airport and enter Russia.
Carney calls measure 'blunt approach'
"This blunt approach is not the product of an informed, open or deliberative process," Carney said. "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."
Proponents of the NSA programs argue that the surveillance operations have been successful in thwarting potential attacks, including a 2009 plot to strike at the New York Stock Exchange.
"This bill would basically turn off our ability to find terrorists trying to attack us," said Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel.
Mike Rogers, a Republican representative from Michigan and chairman of the Intelligence committee, joined other GOP chairmen in a letter urging lawmakers to reject the Amash amendment.
"While many members have legitimate questions about the NSA metadata program, including whether there are sufficient protections for Americans' civil liberties," the chairman wrote, "eliminating this program altogether without careful deliberation would not reflect our duty, under Article I of the Constitution, to provide for the common defence."
With files from Reuters