Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein is very much a politician. The California Democrat has for some time maintained seemingly conflicting positions as a defender of our shadowy surveillance state and an advocate of government transparency. Only through skillful maneuvering has she made her divergent stances appear coherent. Feinstein’s political success is rooted in defending some of the most contentious national security policies while calling for robust civil liberties.
I think the senator’s particular brand of realpolitik is a well-managed hypocrisy. In a rousing Senate-floor speech in March, Feinstein charged that the CIA had spied on Senate Intelligence Committee staff compiling a lengthy report on Bush-era torture — a breach that was eventually confirmed by a recent CIA inspector general report. Feinstein has extolled the virtues of transparency and unhindered congressional oversight. Meanwhile, she has also been a strong supporter of government spy agencies. A defender of CIA drone programs and NSA dragnets, Feinstein has allied herself with some of our government’s most obfuscated and controversial practices.
Unsurprisingly, she has chosen not to stand with fellow intelligence committee members who have called for the resignation of CIA director John Brennan over the agency’s Senate spying. She had suggested that there was the stench of a cover-up effort in the CIA’s access of Senate staff computers, and she has vocally championed efforts to declassify evidence of CIA torture detailed in the 480-page executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s sprawling 6,300-page report. But she has not joined fellow Democratic Senators Mark Udall of Colorado and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico in urging that Brennan step down.
Spencer Ackerman wrote in the Guardian that Feinstein’s “restraint” in this matter is a “shrewd strategic move” that may give her leverage with the spy agency in the declassification battle. In effectively standing with Brennan, Feinstein also avoids exacerbating partisan divisions in her committee, and avoids antagonizing President Obama, Brennan’s great defender.
This is politics, ’twas ever thus. I well remember her near-unmitigated praise for Brennan during his confirmation hearing for CIA top spot last year. She offered up a panegyric of sorts on the drone program Brennan had engineered. She even misleadingly suggested that civilian deaths by US drone strikes had “typically been in the single digits” each year. At the time of the hearing, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that the number of civilians killed by drones in Pakistan alone since 2004 could be as high as 881.
NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden rightly branded Feinstein a hypocrite for decrying spycraft when it is directed at Senate staff but defending the NSA’s unbounded abrogation of the privacy of citizens. There is also careful hypocrisy in her ongoing support of the CIA director as she prominently calls for the declassification of torture evidence. Such hypocrisy is nothing remarkable in Washington, of course — the incoherence of Feinstein’s politics reflects her coherent and clever career in politicking.
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