The fierce debate over privacy and national security has divided Congress, transcending the partisan lines that typically characterize legislative fights — especially in the House. Tea party conservatives and liberal Democrats have backed the amendments. But leaders from both parties have strongly defended the programs, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio
At issue is where to draw the appropriate balance between national security in a post-9/11 America and the right to privacy that Americans expect to enjoy. National security hawks argue that the surveillance programs have helped disrupt numerous attempted terrorist attacks, and warn that future attacks will be harder to prevent if the programs are dismantled. But libertarians and others have contended that the programs constitute an overly broad intrusion into people's communications that, because they're kept secret, have little accountability.
The White House has tried to deflect criticism sparked by the Snowden revelations by arguing that it's taking steps to be as transparent as possible, including declassifying on Friday the fact that the secret court overseeing the programs had renewed an order authorizing part of the records collection. Obama has also discussed the programs with a federal privacy oversight panel.
Civil liberties advocates, however, have rejected those steps as too little, too late, pointing out that Americans would still be in the dark about the NSA's activities had they not been exposed by Snowden, whom the Justice Department is now pursuing on felony charges.
Alexander made the Tuesday trip to ask lawmakers to reject the amendments at the request of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and the committee's top Democrat, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland. The two also warned in a statement that ending the program's authority would put the nation at risk of another terrorist attack.