WASHINGTON— The House on Friday passed a defense spending bill with an amendment that would bar the National Security Agency from conducting warrantless searches of its databases for Americans' communications records.
Although the NSA is permitted to acquire without individualized warrants the communications of foreigners overseas, it has also been allowed to search those records for the communications of Americans in what some lawmakers have called a "backdoor search loophole."
The amendment, adopted late Thursday night by a 293-123 vote, would ban that practice. The provision would also prohibit the government from requiring companies to alter their hardware or software products to assist the NSA or CIA with electronic surveillance.
The bipartisan vote, sponsors say, is a signal to the intelligence community and its House supporters that a reform package passed in May did not go far enough. It comes a year after disclosures on NSA surveillance have stoked debate about the proper balance between privacy and national security, and how far to rein in government surveillance powers.
"It's a huge statement that we in the House on a bipartisan basis believe that the Fourth Amendment has not been repealed and needs to be applied in the NSA arena when it comes to searches of Americans," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., an amendment co-sponsor whose district includes Silicon Valley, home to tech firms that have been urging greater restrictions on surveillance.
But C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., who represents the district where the NSA is headquartered, said the amendment would make Americans less safe. "It would prohibit the urgent search of lawfully collected information to thwart a bomb plot," he said on the floor Thursday night.
The amendment applies to data collected under a 2008 law known as the FISA Amendments Act, which permits the government to acquire without individualized warrants the communications of foreigners who are reasonably believed to be located overseas. In 2011, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court lifted a ban on searching the data collected without a warrant on the communications of Americans. The government has been searching that data since then.
The defense spending bill passed 340-73 Friday and heads to the Senate, where the amendment's prospects are uncertain.
The bill would provide $570 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, personnel, ships and aircraft. It also would halt any transfer of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for a year amid the furor over the swap of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a captive for five years in Afghanistan, for five Taliban leaders who had been held at the U.S. prison.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.