Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 13, 2016

Feinstein Shifts Slow-Burning Anger From Guns to Spies


(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Few senators wait until their 80s, or the start of their third decade in office, to have their breakout moment. But that’s what this past year has been for Dianne Feinstein.

At the end of last winter, the California Democrat surged to national renown as the most passionately vocal and dogged lawmaker in the uphill pursuit of the strictest new gun controls in more than a generation. The attention, both laudatory and condemning, was more than what most members receive in any one Congress. But now Feinstein is on course to outdo herself, with her blockbuster accusation that the CIA spied on Congress and intimidated her staff in an effort to hobble an oversight investigation into the agency’s former detention and interrogation program.

The twin crusades, which now stand to define the pinnacle of her prominence, are closely allied in one important way: Both have Feinstein playing against type, deploying blistering rhetoric and challenging hidebound practices in sharp contrast to her reputation, which is for level-headedness and deliberation.

At the same time, the two causes are polar opposites: Gun control has been a priority for the senator since 1978, when she ascended to the mayoralty of San Francisco after the incumbent, George Moscone, was assassinated. But becoming an outspoken critic of the clandestine community is an entirely new role for Feinstein; as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee for more than five years, she has positioned herself as one of the CIA’s most loyal defenders at the Capitol.

It’s that forceful reversal that may prove more lastingly important.

Feinstein’s bid to ban many styles of semiautomatic weapons, or at least intensify background checks on would-be gun buyers, has been totally stymied at least until after the midterm elections — and that will be true even if another mass killing raises national concern about firearms violence.

But whether to tighten the reins on the sprawling intelligence-gathering community is still an open question in this Congress. It’s one of the few debates that has GOP conservatives and Democratic liberals finding common cause against the establishment mainstream, which has generally succeeded in the post-9/11 era at giving the spymasters broad latitude and billions of dollars to combat terrorism as assertively and secretly as they see fit.

Feinstein has remained at the forefront of that effort as the volume of congressional criticism has increased in recent years. She has publicly defended the CIA’s use of armed drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, supported the FBI’s assertive use of its new investigatory powers under the Patriot Act and praised the expansive telephone and Internet surveillance programs at the National Security Agency, which she credits with stopping terrorist attacks in the United States.

The CIA, in other words, has perhaps picked the worst possible member of Congress to antagonize. Her conversion from ally to combatant could hardly come at a worse time for the agency. That’s because she has the power to cause the biggest rupture between the Hill and the spies since the 1970s, when exposure of their cloak-and-dagger excesses prompted the birth of the current congressional oversight system.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has criticized Feinstein plenty in the past for being too cozy with the agencies she oversees, hailed her for a “forceful, necessary and historic defense of the constitutional principle of separation of powers” in her Tuesday speech.

She accused the CIA of criminal activity in searching a computer network set up so that her committee aides could review top secret files as part of a Senate inquiry. (CIA Director John O. Brennan has denied her allegations and wants the Justice Department to file its own criminal charges, alleging committee staffers improperly obtained top secret files.)

The charges and counter-charges are the first public eruption in a tussle between Feinstein and the CIA that has been fomenting since 2009, when early in her chairmanship she launched an investigation of the agency’s secret prisons and harsh interrogation techniques.

Allies say the senator works to maintain a slow internal burn rate in order to magnify the impact in the rare cases where she allows her passions to bubble over. Critics suspect she suffers from a passivity that can border on indecisive paralysis.

If that’s an unfair conclusion with respect to her work as legislator and overseer, it’s perhaps more justified when it comes to her political ambitions. Her betrayal of ambivalence about running for vice president in 1984 helped prompt Walter F. Mondale to switch his choice late in the process to Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. She publicly agonized about running in a special House election in 1987 — her “no” decision at the last minute easing Nancy Pelosi’s first bid for public office. And while serving as a senator since 1993, she has had extended open flirtations with running for governor no fewer than three times, most recently four years ago.

Feinstein will become the fourth most senior Democrat in the Senate in 2015. (Still three months shy of her 81st birthday, she has also become the youngest “oldest senator” in at least the past four decades, since the deaths of a pair of her colleagues who were nearing 90, Democrats Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.)

With her career moving inevitably toward its final chapters — and with who-spied-on-whom stories remaining in the news — intelligence agency officials would do well to note the simple motto that Feinstein claimed a year ago, when it became clear her gun control legislation would get no further than committee. “I don’t give up,” she said.

  • Rumionemore

    Is David Petraeus feeding Feinstein information about the CIA? Her histrionics and their timing seem odd.

    She and her committee failed to vet the opportunist Petraeus for his CIA post, and they were all caught with their pants down.when he tried to act as CIA Director. Add to this The Guardian’s article about Petraeus’s involvement in torture in Iraq – and the U.S.’s failure to even comment on this – and this latest Feinstein show is a strange one. What’s going on – really?

  • InklingBooks

    Feinstein reminds me of the old adage about one’s attitude depending ‘on whose ox is gored.’ Given her position, Feinstein must have know about the NSA’s broad metadata spying on all Americans, and yet she apparently had little if any problem with it. But now she’s getting all hot and bothered because that spying included her and her committee.
    This fits well with her gun ban frenzy. She wants to disarm ordinary people troubled by crime but not the shoot-crazy Capitol police who killed that unarmed woman last October.
    Sorry, but I’m less than impressed with her selective, self-serving anger. If she’s not going to show more concern about the public in general, maybe she should give up her crusades.

    • Winston Blake

      While Leon Puñettas was so busy with gay pride celebrations at the Pentagon, three Navy Seals and a U.S. ambassador were murdered, all because everyone was being so fúcking gay.

      These people just can’t stop playing with their dícks.

  • docb

    It was acceptable when spying was done to others…but ‘not in my backyard’ was the sword that gored her ox! Hence her outrage!

    • Palindrome

      she is afraid. She has been caught with something she should not have. watch a quiet deal will be cut and then back to business as usual

  • Diggsc

    So…you say she’s all worked up about law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights, but couldn’t care less about the NSA abusing law-abiding citizens Fourth Amendment rights unless they are abusing hers personally. And as a Democrat in good standing, I’m sure she’s completely okay with the IRS illegally targeting law-abiding citizens who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
    And she’s from San Francisco?

    • Winston Blake

      If I were to tell the press millions of Americans would be blown up by an Iranian nut job or that Democrats have stolen your entire life savings with bailouts and Obamacare, nobody panics because it is all part of the plan…

      But, if I say a few homosexuals in San Francisco are upset over their little wee wees, why, everyone just loses their minds!


      A. Joker

  • DevilDog Ding

    Oh, who what this old harpy thinks? She is the Gloria Allred of the Senate: Comes out of her hidey-hole every so often to get her name back in the news so she can claim she’s relevant.

  • Poshboy

    This will not end well. She has always taken these kinds of slights very personally; she has the incredible self-centeredness about political issues, almost like a spoiled child.

    On guns, it was because she almost met Harvey Milk’s fate in the 1978 attack on the SF City Chamber, which she personally witnessed and which left a very deep psychic mark on her. And now that the Agency has not allowed her staff unfettered access to CIA documents, she is on another rampage to show the world that no one pushes her around.

    Going after the NRA was one thing. A well-funded membership association with incredible grassroots strength can only do so much to political figures–they still have to play within the rules. But to tangle with an Agency that has as its mission deception, subterfuge, covert actions, incredibly complex intelligence operations, plausible lies, and a 65-year history of ignoring rules to alter the political history of entire nations?

    DiFi has finally gone a bridge too far. And it could not have happened to a more deserving Senator. She is so naive on real world issues; a thorough schooling of reality will do her well. And the nation.

  • Phil Ossiferz Stone

    The AP didn’t mind the way Obama abused the powers of his office until the AP wiretap scandal — and even that seems to have passed the media-attention horizon. Feinstain stoutly defended the extraordinary powers the Federal government had to surveille and collect data on us until *she* got surveilled.

    The powers that be do not act in the defense of the nation or the Constitutional rule of law. They act when their own sacred oxen are gored.

  • Handis O’Hara

    In this related video we find yet another example of the importance of active, armed, self-defense:

  • Hitched

    A little more insight into Hussein Obama’s personal jihad against our sacred Constitution and Bill of Rights:

  • LastBestHope

    CA has given US Feinstein-Pelosi-Boxer. The Graeae were nice old ladies in comparison.

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