US surveillance, Syria at issue on defense bill

Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 7:31 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Limits on secret U.S. surveillance programs and President Barack Obama's push to help Syrian rebels were in dispute as the House weighed legislation to fund the nation's military.

The House planned to begin debate Tuesday on the $598.3 billion defense spending bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and late Monday the House Rules Committee voted to allow votes on the contentious issues.

Tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats insisted that debate on the bill include amendments changing the way the National Security Agency conducts its recently disclosed program of collecting phone records of millions of Americans. The same unusual coalition joined forces on amendments barring the administration from arming the Syrian rebels without congressional approval.

Republican leaders struggled to limit amendments on the overall bill, concerned about hampering the president's national security and anti-terrorism efforts. The GOP also wanted to avoid the embarrassment of obstructionist rank-and-file Republicans joining forces with Democrats in rejecting the framework — known as the congressional "rule" — for considering the bill if their amendments were ignored.

Pleading with Rules Committee members Monday, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., sponsor of an amendment on the NSA, asked his colleagues to "allow the voice of the people to be heard."

Amash said his measure would allow the NSA to collect data and records, but only if the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said in a statement that the collection of data pertains to an individual under investigation. Otherwise, the NSA would lose its funding.

Former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked documents last month that revealed that the NSA had collected phone records, while a second NSA program forced major Internet companies to turn over contents of communications to the government. Leaders in Congress, such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., have strongly defended the programs, but libertarian lawmakers and liberals have expressed serious concerns about the government's surveillance in a fierce debate over privacy and national security.

The overall defense spending bill drew an expected veto threat from the White House, which argued that it would force cuts to education, health research and other domestic programs to boost spending for the Pentagon.

The House also will consider an amendment that would bar funds for any military action in Syria if it violated the War Powers Resolution. Another amendment would prohibit money to fund military or paramilitary operations in Egypt.

Republicans and Democrats argued that Congress should have a say in what amounted to taking sides in a sectarian war.

The debate over Syria comes as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a cautionary assessment of more aggressive American military action, said establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels would require hundreds of U.S. aircraft at a cost of as much as $1 billion a month with no assurance it would change the momentum in the 2-year-old civil war.

In a letter to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Martin Dempsey outlined the risks, costs and benefits of five potential steps as the Obama administration weighs its next move to help the opposition battling the forces of President Bashar Assad. The sectarian conflict has killed at least 93,000, according to United Nations estimates, and displaced millions, prompting more calls on Capitol Hill for greater American action.

Dempsey said the decision to use force in Syria is not one to be taken lightly.

"It is no less than an act of war," he wrote. And once that decision is made, the U.S. has to be prepared for what may come next. "Deeper involvement is hard to avoid," he said.

The United States has been providing humanitarian assistance to the opposition seeking to overthrow the Assad government. The administration has recently taken steps to arm rebels with weapons and ammunition, a move welcomed by some in Congress but troubling to other lawmakers.

Separately, members of the House Intelligence Committee who had balked weeks ago at the Obama administration's first attempt to pay for lethal aid for the Syrian rebels said Monday that their concerns largely had been addressed.

"After much discussion and review, we got a consensus that we could move forward with what the administration's plans and intentions are in Syria consistent with committee reservations," Rogers said in a statement.

Dempsey spelled out costs, ranging from millions to billions of dollars, for options that included training and arming vetted rebel groups, conducting limited strikes on Syria's air defenses, creating a no-fly zone, establishing a buffer zone and controlling Syria's massive stockpile of chemical weapons.

The military leader said that while these steps would help the opposition and pressure Assad's government, "We have learned from the past 10 years, however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state."

Dempsey's reference was to the more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Joint Chiefs chairman said creation of a no-fly zone would neutralize Syria's air defenses. It would require "hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications. Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year."

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