Jacob Sullum

That was pretty funny, since Obama has been doing everything in his power to prevent ordinary Americans from learning enough about the government's surveillance programs to decide for themselves whether they want to exchange their privacy for his promise of safety.

The leaders of the House's Republican majority and Democratic minority nevertheless sided with the president. Then something pretty amazing happened: The rank and file failed to fall in line. The amendment was defeated, but by a vote so close -- 217 to 205 -- that barely more than a handful of switches would have put it over the top.

Ninety-four Republicans and 111 Democrats defied their leadership. Privacy activists were astounded. Sina Khanifar of DefundtheNSA.com told the Washington Post, "People were like, 'I think we'll get 150 votes if it goes really well.'"

It surely helped that Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a lead author of the Patriot Act, told his colleagues Section 215 was not meant to authorize the indiscriminate collection of information about innocent people. But several legislators went even further, arguing that the government should have a warrant based on probable cause to obtain records held by third parties, which the Supreme Court has said is not necessary because people should realize any information they share with others is fair game for government perusal.

"What began on the political fringes only a week ago has built a momentum that even critics say may be unstoppable," the New York Times reported on Monday. Perhaps it is time to redefine the fringes.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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