- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
The obituary of Rep. Justin Amash’s amendment to claw back the sweeping powers of the National Security Agency has largely been written as a victory for the White House and NSA chief Keith Alexander, who lobbied the Hill aggressively in the days and hours ahead of Wednesday’s shockingly close vote. But Hill sources say most of the credit for the amendment’s defeat goes to someone else: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It’s an odd turn, considering that Pelosi has been, on many occasions, a vocal surveillance critic.
But ahead of the razor-thin 205-217 vote, which would have severely limited the NSA’s ability to collect data on Americans’ telephone records if passed, Pelosi privately and aggressively lobbied wayward Democrats to torpedo the amendment, a Democratic committee aid with knowledge of the deliberations tells The Cable.
"Pelosi had meetings and made a plea to vote against the amendment and that had a much bigger effect on swing Democratic votes against the amendment than anything Alexander had to say," said the source, keeping in mind concerted White House efforts to influence Congress by Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. "Had Pelosi not been as forceful as she had been, it’s unlikely there would’ve been more Democrats for the amendment."
With 111 liberal-to-moderate Democrats voting for the amendment alongside 94 Republicans, the vote in no way fell along predictable ideological fault lines. And for a particular breed of Democrat, Pelosi’s overtures proved decisive, multiple sources said.
"Pelosi had a big effect on more middle-of-the road hawkish Democrats who didn’t want to be identified with a bunch of lefties [voting for the amendment]," said the aide. "As for the Alexander briefings: Did they hurt? No, but that was not the central force, at least among House Democrats. Nancy Pelosi’s political power far outshines that of Keith Alexander’s."
But despite the minority leader’s instrumental role in swaying the vote, you won’t find her taking credit: She’s busy protecting her left flank from liberal supporters of Amash’s amendment — some of whom openly booed her at last month’s Netroots Nation conference where she defended President Obama’s NSA surveillance program.
When contacted, a Pelosi aide did not dispute the minority leader’s assertive role in influencing Democrats, but passed along a letter Pelosi sent to the president today raising skepticism about the NSA’s surveillance powers.
"Dear Mr. President," reads the letter. "Although the amendment was defeated 205-217, it is clear that concerns remain about the continued implementation of the program in its current form. Although some of us voted for and others against the amendment, we all agree that there are lingering questions and concerns about the current 215 collection program."
The letter goes on to question whether the bulk metadata collection program sufficiently protects the privacy of Americans, whether it could be tailored more narrowly and whether the law is being implemented in a manner consistent with Congress’s intent. An aide later emphasized that Pelosi did note declare an official leadership position against the amendment, meaning there was no whip or count established to see how Democrats would vote.
Pelosi is no stranger to intelligence issues; she was a member of the House’s intelligence committee in the aftermath of the September 9/11 attacks. In recent years, she’s grown increasingly skeptical of surveillance powers authorized by the PATRIOT Act, which she voted against in 2005 when it was up for reauthorization and again in February. "Well, I didn’t vote for the PATRIOT Act the last time it was up," she said today, at her weekly press briefing. "I don’t want anybody to misunderstand a vote against the Amash resolution yesterday."
At the briefing, she emphasized her current effort circulating a letter for members to sign expressing concern over how metadata is collected. "The Administration is the custodian of the information. The ownership belongs to the American people," she said. "And we, as their Representatives, have to make decisions about it, we have to know more about it."
Update: Following the article’s publication, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill e-mailed The Cable with the following message. "Leader Pelosi made clear that a vote against the amendment was not a vote for the surveillance activities in question and there were other more appropriate legislative vehicles to seek the changes many Democrats are seeking to make, like the bills introduced by Congressmen Conyers and Schiff."