Dianne Feinstein: Keeping the Eavesdroppers in Check

Even a US senator can face an uphill battle. Such it is with Dianne Feinstein, vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in charge of monitoring the entities that monitor global society. Hers is an unenviable position: Mrs Feinstein has to help keep the expansive US intelligence community on the straight and narrow while ensuring that possible threats and conspirators are identified early-on and stopped.

Though of impeccable Democrat stock, Mrs Feinstein made few friends on the left with her vigorous defence of the need to breach the privacy of ordinary citizens in order to obtain the big data required to map presumed terrorist networks. She has repeatedly branded whistle blower Edward Snowden a “traitor” for disclosing the mass surveillance programmes involving the National Security Agency (NSA) and others.

She did, however, condemn the tapping of the mobile phones of friendly foreign leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Mrs Feinstein also supported a number of bills that include backdoor provisions through which the NSA may continue to conduct warrantless searches.

“Mrs Feinstein has to help keep the expansive US intelligence community on the straight and narrow while ensuring that possible threats and conspirators are identified early-on and stopped.”

Perhaps not the stuff heroes are made of. However, Senator Feinstein did cause quite a stir when she labelled the US government’s rendition programme a “stain on our values and on our history.” She has since been on the Central Intelligence Agency’s case, ensuring that it operates within well-established legal bounds and refrains from clandestine adventures.

Just before the Republicans reclaimed the chair of Senate Intelligence Committee on January 6, Mrs Feinstein introduced a legislative proposal that would outlaw the use of torture – euphemistically and malignantly described as enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) – and limit the CIA’s legal ability to keep suspects in detention for longer than a few days.

Mrs Feinstein’s initiative aims to provide a legislative backstop to the executive orders of 2009 that were supposed to close all torture loopholes. Though these orders were signed into law by President Barack Obama, they can be easily revoked by a future president.

Mrs Feinstein was first elected to the US Senate in 1992 after a failed gubernatorial bid two years earlier. Since then, California voters have re-elected her four consecutive times. In 2012, Mrs Feinstein set a national record for senate races when she received 7.75 million direct votes.

While in Washington, Senator Feinstein gained notoriety as a staunch liberal. In 1994, her Federal Assault Weapons Ban was accepted as a subsection on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The ban included a prohibition on the manufacturing and sale of both semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines for use by civilians.

Though the ban was repeatedly challenged in court for allegedly violating constitutional rights not specifically enumerated (Ninth Amendment) and breaching the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourth Amendment. Curiously, the ban was never fought under the right to bear arms provision as contained in the Second Amendment. The act – and the ban – remained in force until it was allowed to expire in 2004 as per its sunset clause. Since then, all attempts to renew the ban have failed.

Now 81, Mrs Feinstein is the oldest serving US Senator.

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