By Alexander Bolton - 06/15/13 10:00 AM EDT
A recent briefing by senior intelligence officials on surveillance programs failed to attract even half of the Senate, showing the lack of enthusiasm in Congress for learning about classified security programs. [WATCH VIDEO]
Many senators elected to leave Washington early Thursday afternoon instead of attending a briefing with James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), and other officials.
Only 47 of 100 senators attended the 2:30 briefing, leaving dozens of chairs in the secure meeting room empty as Clapper, Alexander and other senior officials told lawmakers about classified programs to monitor millions of telephone calls and broad swaths of Internet activity. The room on the lower level of the Capitol Visitor Center is large enough to fit the entire Senate membership, according to a Senate aide.
The Hill was not provided the names of who did, and who didn't, attend the briefing.
The exodus of colleagues exasperated Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who spent a grueling week answering colleagues’ and media questions about the program.
“It’s hard to get this story out. Even now we have this big briefing — we’ve got Alexander, we’ve got the FBI, we’ve got the Justice Department, we have the FISA Court there, we have Clapper there — and people are leaving,” she said.
The briefing also included the former chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court and Sean Joyce, the deputy director of the FBI, according to Feinstein.
Lawmakers have been quick to call for increased congressional oversight of the phone and Internet monitoring programs, but many have been unwilling to skip flights or make other scheduling sacrifices to learn more of the secret details.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, said lawmakers should attend briefings before casting important votes.
“People who are taking their committee responsibilities seriously or taking a vote or other policy action seriously should try to do these things fairly often,” O’Hanlon said.
As a member of an advisory board made up of policy experts and former government officials, O’Hanlon receives briefings from senior intelligence officials.
“The intelligence community tends to come in and make a serious presentation,” he said.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said lawmakers would be better equipped to scrutinize the claims of senior intelligence officials if they attended briefings more regularly.
“If members were more diligent about attending briefings they would be far better informed about what’s going on, and they would also be far more willing to challenge the intelligence community on the conclusions that they come to,” she said.
“The truth is that members always come in at the end of the game, and as a result they take as gospel the assessments that they receive from the intelligence community,” she added.
Alexander has claimed the surveillance programs have helped thwart dozens of terrorist attacks.
Lawmakers often vote to approve the intelligence programs with only a vague idea of what they’re authorizing. Feinstein says her colleagues should have known about the NSA programs from prior debates.
“We have discussed this, we have voted on this in committee, on the floor. People should go out and see how the program is set up, see how it’s conducted, ask questions, come to the briefings,” said Feinstein.
Many senators claimed they were never briefed on the NSA’s surveillance programs when the British newspaper The Guardian caused a media firestorm by reporting their existence earlier this month.
“I’m pretty good about attending meetings; I don’t remember being briefed,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told reporters on June 6, when the public learned the extent of the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata.
He voted for the Patriot Act, but said he did not intend to grant blanket authority to collect millions of phone records.
Isakson attended the Thursday afternoon briefing and declined to comment to reporters afterward.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the chief critics of the surveillance programs, was spotted leaving the briefing.
Disputes between senior intelligence officials and members of Congress over who was told what, when, have been going on for years.
During the Reagan administration there was a fierce debate between administration officials and senators about whether Congress was informed about the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors.
Gary Schmitt, an AEI scholar who served as Democratic staff director on the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1982 to 1984, said then-CIA director William Casey had told members of the committee about the covert action but couched it in such a way as to minimize notice.
“The mining was mentioned but it was mentioned in the context of a very long briefing that Casey was giving and it was done in passive voice and in such a way as to make it sound like an ongoing program,” he recalled. “It was a case of writing it in such a way as to obscure the fact that the agency was directly involved in the mining.”
This article was updated at 7:46 a.m.