By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. spy program that sweeps up vast amounts of electronic communications survived a legislative challenge in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, the first attempt to curb the data gathering since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of its scope.
The House of Representatives voted 217-205 to defeat an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would have limited the National Security Agency's ability to collect electronic information, including phone call records.
Opposition to government surveillance has created an unlikely alliance of libertarian Republicans and some Democrats in Congress, The House vote split the parties, with 94 Republicans in favor and 134 against, while 111 Democrats supported the amendment and 83 opposed it.
The White House and senior intelligence officials opposed the amendment by Republican Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, which had been prompted by Snowden's revelations. Snowden, a fugitive from the United States, has been holed up at a Moscow airport for the past month unable to secure asylum.
The House later approved the defense appropriations bill, which included nearly $600 billion in Pentagon spending for the 2014 fiscal year, including the costs of the Afghanistan war.
Republican Representative Tom Cotton, who endorsed the NSA program, described the "metadata" being collected as essentially a five-column spreadsheet containing the number called, the number of the caller, the date, the time and the duration of call.
"This program has stopped dozens of terrorist attacks," Cotton said. "That means it has saved untold American lives. This amendment ... does not limit the program, it does not modify it, it does not constrain the program, it ends the program. It blows it up."
Cotton, a former Army captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said a comprehensive set of phone call records was needed in order for the program to work.
"If you want to search for a needle in a haystack, you have to have the haystack. This (amendment) takes a leaf-blower and blows away they entire haystack. You will not have this program if this amendment passes."
But Amash, a conservative Republican, and other supporters of the amendment said the fundamental issue was whether the U.S. government had the right to collect and retain the personal communications data of American citizens.
"Government's gone too far in the name of security," said Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican. "Rein in government invasion, no more dragnet operations, get a specific warrant based on probable cause or stay out of our lives."
Representative Joe Barton, another Texas Republican, said the issue was not whether the NSA was sincere or careful in collecting data for use in anti-terrorism operations.
"It is (about) whether they have the right to collect the data in the first place on every phone call on every American every day," he said, noting that the law only allowed collection of relevant data. "In the NSA's interpretation of that, relevant is all data, all the time. That's simply wrong."
U.S. spy chiefs, the White House and senior lawmakers responsible for overseeing intelligence agencies in Congress had joined ranks against the effort to curb the program.
Representatives Mike Rogers of Michigan and Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the Republican chairman and senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement after the vote that the amendment would have eliminated a "crucial counterterrorism tool."
"The charge that the program tramples on the privacy of citizens is simply wrong," they said, promising to work to build public confidence in the program's privacy protections.
In an unusually public discourse on a secret spying program, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, urged the House in a statement on Wednesday to be wary of the "potential effect of limiting the intelligence community's capabilities" under the current law.
Clapper's statement came amid a push against the proposal by the White House and other senior intelligence officials, including Army General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, who visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to warn about the implications of the amendment.
The House overwhelming approved a separate amendment dealing with the NSA surveillance program that was billed as an alternative to the Amash amendment.
But critics charged that the measure only restated current law, which prevents collection of the content of emails and phone calls, and would not deal with collection of "metadata."
(Reporting by David Alexander, Tabassum Zakaria and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Vicki Allen and Jackie Frank)