What with the important news of a baby being born in England and the further adventures of Anthony Weiner's penis dominating our attention, you probably didn't notice the failure yesterday of an amendment in the House to end the NSA's program collecting phone records on you, your neighbors, and every other American. Keep in mind that, as Sen. Ron Wyden has intimated, there are almost certainly other NSA surveillance programs that we would also be shocked to hear about, but remain secret.
That this amendment, sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Amash, got a vote at all is somewhat surprising, but from all appearances, Speaker John Boehner saw it as a way to allow the more libertarian members of his caucus to let off some steam and take a stand against government surveillance. It may not have ever had much of a chance of passing both the House and Senate, but the Obama administration pushed for a no vote and General Keith Alexander himself went to Capitol Hill to lobby against it, and in the end it went down by a vote of 217-205. (Up until recently, few people outside the military had any idea who General Alexander is—and most Americans still don't—but as Wired described the NSA chief and head of the United States Cyber Command in a recent profile, "Never before has anyone in America's intelligence sphere come close to his degree of power, the number of people under his command, the expanse of his rule, the length of his reign, or the depth of his secrecy.") It was a rare case of bipartisanship; a look at the vote shows a coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats supporting Amash's amendment; the votes to keep the NSA spying program were similarly made up of members from both parties.
It's hard to predict what will happen in the future, but this may well be the only serious legislative attempt to rein in the NSA we'll see. The hubbub over Edward Snowden's revelations has died down, we had something resembling a debate about what the limits of the government's ability to spy on its citizens ought to be, and now they can go back to reading your emails and checking whom you called when.
Here's the depressing reality: Congress is not only not going to stop the NSA surveillance program, it probably isn't even going to restrict it in the least. And then when the next Republican president is elected in three years or seven years or eleven years, and all those Bush-era Republicans stream back into the White House and the NSA and Pentagon, giddy at these shiny new surveillance tools (and a legal regime about as restrictive as a mumu) they've been bequeathed, the gloves are really going to come off.
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