Though it failed by a twelve-vote margin, Congressman Justin Amash’s (R-MI) amendment last week to curtail the NSA’s dragnet surveillance efforts reveals new fault lines in the debate over privacy. The roll call for the vote shows that 111 Democrats and ninety-four Republicans supporting the measure, which was co-sponsored by Amash’s Democratic colleague, John Conyers.
The amendment failed as the White House and NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander personally lobbied lawmakers to oppose the measure. At first glance, a look at the ‘no’ votes seems to suggest an odd coalition of establishment Republicans and Democrats rallying to support the administration’s position. Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican who casts himself as a leader on privacy issues and as a tough opponent of most of President Obama’s domestic policies, voted against the Amash bill. So did minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who, as The Huffington Post reported, previously criticized the section of the Patriot Act enabling large-scale data-mining as a “massive invasion of privacy.”
Why would an anti-Obama Republican and a supposedly pro-privacy Democrat join forces to uphold the NSA’s surveillance policies?
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MapLight, the Berkeley-based campaign finance website, has aggregated the numbers and found that lawmakers “voting to continue the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs received on average 122 percent more money ($41,635) from defense contractors and other defense industry interests than did representatives who voted to end the programs (18,765).” Amash has received a mere $1,400 from industry PACs and individuals.
Profit-driven defense contractors, like Booz Allen Hamilton and Boeing, manage the lion’s share of the government’s surveillance efforts. While it’s unknown at this point if any of the firms involved in the NSA’s domestic spying efforts attempted to influence the vote, the evidence suggests that recipients of defense contractor cash are more likely to vote to support NSA policies.
This is what makes the NSA debate very different from recent high-profile battles over privacy, like the Stop Online Piracy Act. In that situation, you had big technology firms helping to fund the advocacy against SOPA, which critics charged would lead to online censorship. The technology companies were worried that SOPA would cost them money, so they lobbied against it, and helped organize the public to defeat the legislation. In the debate over the government’s intelligence-gathering programs, there are huge firms that profit from the preservation of NSA policies. But it’s not clear if there is any major industry opposition to mass spying. So in our money-driven political system, the chances for reform remain limited.