Last week, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) signaled that she too recognizes the destructive influence of government surveillance. For too long, she has been among the most high-profile public defenders of the United States government’s NSA surveillance. As the Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein has publicly defended the legality of the NSA’s efforts under the Patriot Act. Aiming at another large government agency, she publicly lambasted the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the Senate floor for allegedly violating the separation-of-powers principles in disputes over documents Feinstein’s committee was analyzing regarding CIA “black sites” used for counterterrorism efforts between 2002 and 2006. Central to her claims is what she believes is evidence that the CIA withdrew documents from Senate control without consent.
Many critics have suggested Feinstein’s emboldened attack on the CIA signals hypocrisy, not recognizing the grave potential harm the NSA’s surveillance has on millions of Americans and people abroad. Feinstein has failed to recognize that her allegations against the CIA rooted in the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment are wildly similar to constitutional critiques of the NSA’s invasive counterterrorism measures. Feinstein has also showed little evolution regarding the matter as recently as last fall when she introduced an NSA “reform” bill after facing significant political pressure. Rather than stop the NSA’s unconstitutional actions, her anti-privacy “reform” bill sought to essentially codify the NSA’s actions. Feinstein’s reform bill was reform in name only.
This Trojan horse wasn't lost on many of Feinstein’s Congressional colleagues. Feinstein came under fire by civil liberties advocacy groups across the board, and even the original author of the Patriot Act, Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), came out against Feinstein’s bill saying that it extended an abuse of the original legislation. Rep. Sensebrenner gave voice to those who felt Congressional oversight had “hit the gas pedal” rather than “put the brakes on overreaches” in offering a bill to reel in NSA and other agencies exploiting the Patriot Act with a Senate equivalent sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Feinstein had offered what many concluded was a bill to codify NSA’s invasive programs with superficial, ultimately inconsequential reporting requirements.
Feinstein and her Congressional allies have an opportunity to recognize the destructive influence surveillance has on all people, and not just classified Congressional inquiries but all unconstitutional abuses of power that spy on citizens. The Senator’s full-throated indigence and willingness to go toe-to-toe with the CIA signals resolve but not enough resolve. As the Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, with oversight over the NSA and other agencies engaging in surveillance, Feinstein ought to show leadership to restore the rights of all citizens to be free of government surveillance. Just as the CIA’s alleged actions have deeply concerned Feinstein, the NSA’s confirmed actions bear similar consideration and action.