Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have complained that they were kept in the dark about the National Security Agency's recently revealed surveillance programs, but more than half of the U.S. Senate neglected to attend a Thursday briefing on those programs from NSA and intelligence officials, according to The Hill. Many opted instead to fly out of Washington early for Father's Day weekend.
Only 47 of 100 senators attended the meeting, at which James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, and Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, briefed lawmakers on the details of programs that the NSA uses to gather troves of data on Americans' telephone calls and foreigners' Internet activity.
The disclosure of those programs last week by a former government contractor ignited a firestorm of controversy on Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers who had ostensibly voted to authorize them griped that they did not anticipate how broadly the NSA would interpret the new surveillance authority granted to it by Congress.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has defended the legality and necessity of the surveillance programs, pushed back on complaints about a lack of awareness, saying it is lawmakers' responsibility to avail themselves of opportunities to learn more about legislation.
"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. "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."
Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Hill that if lawmakers were more "diligent" about attending briefings like Thursday's, "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."
And lawmakers are not only missing briefings on the NSA programs after they were revealed. At least one fierce critic of the government's surveillance authority actually missed a key briefing on the Internet surveillance program before it was made public.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who has said he is deeply concerned about the programs in question, was invited to a briefing last November at which U.S. officials informed lawmakers about the details of an Internet surveillance program known as PRISM. Merkley, according to Buzzfeed, arrived at the briefing but stayed only a very short time before departing to make an appearance on MSNBC.
Merkley's spokesman said the senator thought the briefing was about something "he had already been briefed on, and when conflicts arose, he missed the meeting."
The spokesman added, "Sen. Merkley is deeply concerned about the privacy of American citizens and the scope of government data collection, and has sought out various information in that regard."