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US House rejects bid to curb NSA data surveillance

The US House of Representatives has rejected an attempt to limit a phone surveillance program. The vote was the first attempt to curb data gathering since the whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed details of its scope.

The US spy program narrowly survived a legislative challenge on Wednesday when the House of Representatives voted down an attempt to restrict its capacity to collect electronic information.

Lawmakers rejected a proposed amendment to the defense appropriations bill by a majority of 217-205.

The amendment, put forward Republican Representative Justin Amash, would have cut funding for a National Security Agency (NSA) program that gathers information on telephone data from millions of Americans.

Changes to the law were backed by an unusual alliance of Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats. However the White House, several senior members of Congress, and senior intelligence officials, all came out in support of the surveillance program.

Wednesday's vote was the first legislative move in connection with the NSA program since Snowden's revelations six weeks ago.

The former NSA contractor leaked details of programs that collect phone logs from US citizens and Internet data from the accounts of foreigners. Snowden, who remains holed up inside the transit zone of a Moscow airport, is seeking asylum in Russia.

US lawmakers divided

Despite fierce White House lobbying ahead of the vote, Democrats and Republicans alike were split over the proposed amendment. A majority of 111 House Democrats voted for the Amash amendment while 83 were against. Among Republicans, 94 were for it and 134 against.

In a heated debate ahead of the vote, Amash argued the Obama administration was using fear to help justify its "violation of rights."

"The government collects the phone records, without suspicion, of every single American in the United States," Amash said.

Republican Representative Tom Cotton countered that the program had stopped "dozens of terrorist attacks," and "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," he warned.

A second amendment that also addressed US surveillance but was seen as having far less of an impact passed by 409 votes to 12. Both measures were part of a Department of Defense spending bill, later passed by the House, which approved nearly $600 billion (456.6 billion euros) in Pentagon spending for the 2014 fiscal year.

According to a recent poll by The Washington Post and ABC News almost three-quarters of respondents believe the NSA programs were infringing on some Americans' privacy rights.

ccp/jm (AFP, Reuters)