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Congress to vote on amendment to defund NSA surveillance

Top NSA official Gen. Keith Alexander is urging Congress not to defund the spy agency's phone surveillance program. (Source: NSA.gov) Top NSA official Gen. Keith Alexander is urging Congress not to defund the spy agency's phone surveillance program. (Source: NSA.gov)
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(RNN) - The U.S. Congress is set to vote on an amendment in the Defense Appropriations Bill that would defund a controversial part of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.

However, the White House and the NSA are urging members of Congress to vote against it. A vote could come as soon as Wednesday.

The amendment, proposed by Rep. Justin Amash, R-MI, and supported by several Democrats and Republicans, would cut funds to Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The law allows the NSA to collect an unlimited amount of the American public's call records without a warrant.

The vast collection of Americans' phone records was the first leak from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, initially reported by The Guardian. Other documents followed that gave more insight into the government's massive surveillance program.

According to the U.S. House of Representatives website, the bill "ends authority for the blanket collection of records under the Patriot Act." It also bars the NSA and others from using Section 215 to collect records, "including telephone call records that pertain to persons who are not subject to an investigation."

In a show of bipartisan support, the bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Jared Polis, D-CO, Mick Mulvaney, R-SC, Thomas Massie, R-KY, and John Conyers Jr., D-MI.

In addition, the bill is widely supported by privacy rights groups such as Stop Watching Us and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which described the bill as "an important step in curbing the NSA's domestic surveillance."

Although it was barely introduced Monday, the bill quickly caught the attention of privacy activists. A website, DefundtheNSA.com, was quickly put up to help people urge their representatives to vote for its passage.

"The vote on this bill is critical," the website's homepage says. "We need to flood Congress with calls in support of the amendment and hold our representatives accountable."

The site gives representatives' phone numbers and a sample script for people to use.

In an interview with Motherboard, Sina Khanifar, the creator of the website, said the vote will serve as a way for the people to know where their representative stands on the issue of mass government surveillance.

"The most important part of this is that it's the first instance of members of the House voting for or against the gathering of metadata," Khanifar said. "It's a bit like drawing a line in the sand, and asking members of Congress if they're for or against it. Everyone's going to be on record as either opposing or supporting NSA surveillance."

Despite the wide support for the bill, the White House is strongly against it.

"We oppose the current effort in the House to hastily dismantle one of our intelligence community's counterterrorism tools," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

The statement continues: "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."

The NSA is also making a strong push to convince Congress not to pass the bill.

Tuesday, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger called members of the House for an emergency meeting with top NSA official Gen. Keith Alexander that was labeled "top secret," the Huffington Post reported.

Amash tweeted a response to the backlash against his amendment.

"Pres Obama opposes my #NSA amendment, but American people overwhelmingly support it," Amash wrote. "Will your Rep stand with the [White House] or the Constitution?"

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