WASHINGTON — It was a striking moment when Senator Susan Collins said this week that she was surprised to learn that government spies were routinely collecting telephone records from ordinary citizens, echoing a common refrain on Capitol Hill.
“The first I heard of the program was when it broke in the news,” the Maine Republican said.
But Collins is one of the few Americans who could have demanded more details. She serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, with access to classified briefings. And although she joined the committee only this year, she was, like all members of the Senate, eligible to attend or request off-the-record sessions.
Many members of Congress, despite possessing security clearances and repeatedly voting to grant legal authority to monitor civilian activities, have said over the past week that, in effect, they knew less about some key aspects of American intelligence gathering than Edward Snowden, the government contractor who has said he was the source for leaked information about the National Security Agency’s programs to track phone records and Internet databases.
Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, went so far as to say that Snowden’s action was beneficial.
“Quite frankly, it helps people like me become aware of a situation that I wasn’t aware of before, because I don’t sit on that Intelligence Committee,” Tester said on MSNBC.
The lack of knowledge about the NSA programs among many members of Congress has focused new attention on whether the seemingly scattershot system of briefing lawmakers has led to a breakdown in congressional oversight of intelligence matters.
Numerous lawmakers chose not to attend briefings offered by the House and Senate intelligence committees, even as they were repeatedly approving the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act, which granted the National Security Agency the authority to mine information from private citizens.
“They certainly voted on these programs,” said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. “And if they didn’t know what they were voting on, I’m not sure that it is the executive branch’s responsibility.”
McCain said he was briefed in detail because he is a high-ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But other less detailed briefing sessions were open to rank-and-file senators, he said. And senators not satisfied with initial briefings had the right to request more information, McCain said.
“You can sit there as an elected member and say, ‘Gee I didn’t know anything about this,’ ” said Robert Blitzer, senior fellow at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and the FBI’s former counterterrorism chief. “But at the same time, maybe it is your business to know what is going on in general with the intelligence community.”
But many lawmakers who have been critical of the NSA programs complain that the briefings have been inadequate and that restrictions on lawmakers stifle a full debate.
“Part of the problem with all of this is that it’s so hard to have an intelligent debate because so much of it is said to be secretive,” said Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who attended briefings and has been highly critical of the surveillance program. “Whether or not we’re trolling through a billion phone calls a day, that shouldn’t be a secret.”
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California and the top Republican, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, said they invited all senators to briefings given ahead of the 2010 and 2011 reauthorizations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
A 2011 letter from the committee leaders to all senators said, for example: “We invite each Senator to read this classified report in our committee spaces. . . . [Intelligence personnel are] available to meet with any Member who has questions.”
Intelligence briefings are typically held in a windowless room, often in the Capitol or a congressional office building. Lawmakers are not permitted to bring telephones and are briefed by intelligence agency officials on what they may and may not discuss publicly.
“I attended a number of briefings where there was an allusion to interception or collection or surveillance, but none of it in the depth and detail that has been disclosed or revealed since then,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.
Members of the House were invited to attend similar briefings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
But according to Representative William R. Keating, a Bourne Democrat, the invitations did not detail what the members would be learning, and he did not attend.
Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who has been particularly critical of the surveillance, said he did not request a briefing. “I have to know something’s happening before I ask for a briefing,” he said. “I’ve done my job on this. I voted against the Patriot Act. I spoke out against it from Day 1.”
Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat, said he is apprehensive about the briefings.
“Once you’re told about it in a classified setting, then you feel like you can’t speak about it,” he said.
Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and William “Mo” Cowan, both of whom entered the Senate this year, said they had not been briefed.
Lawmakers say that even when they ask the right questions, the answers are not always candid. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat who serves on the Intelligence Committee, accused James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, of misleading the public during a March hearing.
Wyden had asked if the NSA collected any type of data on millions of Americans, to which Clapper responded: “No, sir.” Clapper said in a Sunday interview on NBC that he had given the “least untruthful” answer, saying he was thinking of collection of information about individuals, not amassing telephone records.
Wyden wasn’t satisfied, saying this week that he had given Clapper his question in advance but still didn’t receive a “straight answer.”