BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — SALEM — Congressman John Tierney, D-Salem, joined with seven of the eight members of the Bay State’s Congressional delegation Wednesday in a failed bid to halt the National Security Agency’s program to collect phone records on millions of Americans.
“We have to get a better system,” Tierney said in an interview, indicating that it should be one that does not make such a broad sweep of records as the present surveillance program does.
Democrat Seth Moulton of Salem, who has already launched a campaign to challenge Tierney in the primary for the 6th District seat next year, said through a spokeswoman that he would have voted against the measure to halt the surveillance program.
“I have seen our enemies and understand the danger they present,” Moulton, a former Marine, said in an email. “There needs to be limits on the NSA, but I believe we can preserve and protect our nation, its citizens and our freedom without blanket restrictions on those charged with our nation’s safety.”
Moulton served four tours of duty in Iraq, part of that time as a special assistant to then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus and as a counterinsurgency adviser south of Baghdad.
The effort to stop the surveillance program came as an amendment to the 2014 defense spending bill. The House defeated the amendment, which would have killed the program, by a vote of 217-205.
The vote did not fall along the usual party lines; 94 Republicans and 111 Democrats voted to halt the surveillance program, while 134 Republicans and 83 Democrats voted to keep it. Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, D-Brookline, was the only member of the Massachusetts delegation who voted to save the program.
The effort to save the program got backing from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as well as from President Obama.
The amendment would have canceled the authority of the NSA under the USA Patriot Act to collect phone records and digital metadata unless an individual was being targeted. The debate pitted those who saw the program as a threat to Americans’ privacy against those who saw canceling the program as a threat to the nation’s security.
“My position has been consistent since Day One,” said Tierney, the ranking member of the National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “The section 215 of the Patriot Act was overly broad.”
This controversial section expanded the scope of business records the government can obtain in an intelligence investigation with approval from a secret court.
Tierney, an attorney, said he favors a system in which the government has to specify whether someone’s records are relevant to an investigation. He said it is not appropriate to grab millions of Americans’ records just to have them.
While there is a feeling among House members that the present NSA program is not the best, Tierney said some of his colleagues felt it would be better to give the intelligence community more time to improve the system.
“The evidence has been there has been no big rush to improve it,” Tierney said.
Wednesday’s debate followed revelations in recent weeks about the broad scope of the program uncovered by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, who leaked secret documents and details to a British newspaper and later fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he has been holed up at the airport while seeking asylum.
Congressman John Conyers, D-Mich., speaking in support of the amendment, argued that, “All this amendment is intended to do is to curtail the ongoing dragnet collection and storage of the personal records of innocent Americans. It does not de-fund the NSA, and it would allow them to continue to conduct full-fledged surveillance as long as it relates to an actual investigation.”
Speaking against the amendment, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., referred to the intelligence leaks, saying “the only result is that those who are engaged in Islamic jihad will have been benefited, and those we seek to protect have not.”
Tierney said the defeat of the amendment Wednesday does not mean an end to the debate on the NSA program; rather, he said, it sent a message that the surveillance program needs reform.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.