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Senator Secrecy

Feinstein Sends Mixed Messages in Privacy-Security Clash


As mayor of San Francisco, Senator Dianne Feinstein routinely berated reporters whose articles displeased her or, when really fuming, she’d skip a step and chew out their editors first.

During her tenure, a City Hall reporter once broke a story disclosing the secret conclusions reached by a mayoral task force on building a new ballpark, then a very hot issue in S.F., before she wanted to release it.

Jerry Roberts

A few hours after it appeared on the front page of her morning paper, Feinstein summoned the reporter for an angry lecture, instructing him not to write stories based on leaks because they were “premature ejaculations.”

There were no injuries.

SURPRISE ATTACK: Although long ago and now trivial, the episode offers a window into the career-long hostile view held by California’s 80-year-old senior senator about unauthorized release of information.

It has not been surprising that Democrat Feinstein has emerged as the strongest and most consistent advocate in Congress of the intelligence establishment and government secrecy. As chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, she has been particularly visible and vocal in defending the National Security Agency’s surveillance state programs, since news organizations began reporting about the extraordinary leaks of NSA documents by former contractor Edward Snowden.

What was surprising, however, was Feinstein’s remarkable and widely reported March 11 attack on the Central Intelligence Agency, whose interests she has long championed while overseeing its activities, on the Senate floor.

Her broadside, which has created a Beltway political crisis in congressional-intelligence community relations, accused the Agency of hacking into her committee’s computers to retrieve an internal CIA report about the use of torture during the administration of President George W. Bush, an issue which Feinstein’s committee has been researching and writing a study about for five years; the CIA in turn charged that her staff members improperly removed the document from agency computers.

In a spy-versus-spy twist, both Feinstein and the CIA promptly referred their complaints to the Justice Department for criminal action.

The republic is safe for now — more work for lawyers.

Why now? Beyond her stated claims, speculation has swirled over why Feinstein so surprisingly — and so publicly –— assailed the leading U.S. spy agency, after serving as benefactor for so long.

With Republicans well positioned to take control of the Senate in November, she may have feared that the long-awaited torture report might never be released, for example. Or perhaps she had an eye on her popularity ratings at home, which have plummeted by 15 points since her 2012 reelection, as the NSA controversy often has commanded headlines.

Some veteran DiFi watchers (we name no names) believe she may have reacted with such outrage for the simple reason that the CIA’s alleged computer incursion touched her personally.

“It’s all about Dianne,” went a familiar refrain during her City Hall years, often accompanied by the rolling of eyes.

Feinstein is someone whose political worldview has always been shaped more by personal experience than ideology. On crucial issues, and at key points in her career, the senator has used anecdotal events to craft policy positions.

Two examples: Feinstein has traced her flip-flop, from a foe of the death penalty to a fierce supporter, to serving on California’s women’s parole board, where she heard a female felon testify that she unloaded her gun before an armed robbery for fear of accidentally killing someone and getting the gas chamber; she routinely explains her support of gun control by recounting the gory details of finding Harvey Milk’s body after his assassination.

Now, her transformation from intelligence community shill to ferocious critic came only after her committee’s privacy may have been violated.

Snowden speaks: While trashing the CIA over a relatively narrow issue, Feinstein has defended the NSA’s sweeping domestic program of acquiring and storing private phone and internet data, to be renewed automatically this month, without passage of a reform measure. Her backing of the NSA has come over objections from what she has dismissed as “the privacy people.”

“It’s called protecting America,” a furious Feinstein famously said of the NSA’s once-secret program, in the aftermath of the first published stories based on Snowden’s leaks.

Her double standard, if not flagrant hypocrisy, has not gone unnoticed, by critics from Jon Stewart (good bit here: HYPERLINK “http://tinyurl.com/qg8rvvh”tinyurl.com/qg8rvvh) to Snowden himself:

Feinstein, the fugitive leaker told NBC, “does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”

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