Some secrets don’t faze Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She keeps plenty, after all, as the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But the 15-member panel that the California Democrat has led since 2009 is scrambling to catch up with the latest public revelations about government spying.
It’s a potentially awkward position for the 80-year-old lawmaker, who has regularly defended secret surveillance programs that others have knocked, and who now must defend the quality of congressional oversight as well.
On Friday Feinstein faced news reports that a National Security Agency audit had found thousands of violations of privacy rules or legal guidelines designed to protect communications by Americans and others that originated in the United States.
“The committee has been notified, and has held briefings and hearings, in cases where there have been significant . . . compliance issues,” Feinstein said in a statement Friday. “In all such cases, the incidents have been addressed by ending or adapting the activity.”
Ensconced in Lake Tahoe in preparation for a high-level Tahoe environmental meeting Monday, Feinstein hadn’t necessarily planned on dealing with intelligence-related queries this week. That changed when The Washington Post disclosed the previously secret NSA audit, which found more than 2,700 violations over the course of a year.
The Post and Feinstein offered different characterizations of the audit, dated May 2012, leading to markedly different conclusions about congressional oversight of surveillance programs.
The Post’s article, by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Barton Gellman, said Feinstein “did not receive a copy of the 2012 audit until the newspaper asked her staff about it.” The paper’s phrasing created a picture of intelligence agency recalcitrance combined with Senate committee cluelessness, and it drove harsh reactions.
“It’s clear that oversight of the NSA and the broader intelligence community is failing,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Congress needs to re-examine its relationship to the intelligence community if we are going to restore confidence that privacy rights are protected in this country.”
A member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., added in a similar vein that “the administration leans heavily on the claim that there is robust oversight by Congress and the (intelligence) courts, but neither is getting all of the information they need.”
The report centered on the kind of surprise that no political leader likes to see, least of all Feinstein, a senior and influential member of the Senate.
In 2009, for instance, she laid down a marker when she blasted President Barack Obama for failing to consult her before he named former California Congressman Leon Panetta as CIA director.
Feinstein insisted Friday that she and her Intelligence panel members had, in fact, previously had received the relevant information the Post disclosed. The difference, she said, was that the information came “in a more official format rather than as an internal NSA statistical report,” which the Post had obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“As I have said previously, the committee has never identified an instance in which the NSA has intentionally abused its authority to conduct surveillance for inappropriate purposes,” Feinstein said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred to Feinstein’s remarks in the administration’s own reaction to the Post story.
Feinstein’s counterpart, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., likewise stressed the sufficiency of current oversight, declaring that his committee “has been apprised of previous incidents, takes seriously each one, and uses the oversight and compliance regime to provide us insight into these operations and whether further adjustments must be made.”
At the same time, Feinstein said her committee “can and should do more to independently verify that NSA’s operations are appropriate,” and she indicated that there would be “more routine trips” by committee staffers to the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md.
Feinstein and a fellow Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, are the most experienced members of what’s formally called the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Both joined the panel in 2001, giving them years of exposure to the multi-agency intelligence community, whose annual budget has swelled to an estimated $55 billion.
Twice a week, almost always in secret, the Senate panel convenes in its specially protected room on the second floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. The House Intelligence panel meets in the underground Capitol Visitor Center.
In recent months, amid a spate of revelations, the leaders and ranking minority members of both committees have tended to stand together in defense of the intelligence agencies they oversee.
In June, for instance, Feinstein joined with her ranking member, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, to offer public support for the mass collection of telephone records called “metadata.” On Aug. 1, the two committees’ leaders joined arm in arm in attacking the “inaccurate and reckless way” in which a certain intelligence program had been characterized.
But other lawmakers, exposed to the same information because of their oversight positions, have reached different conclusions.
“We have previously said that the violations of these laws and rules were more serious than had been acknowledged,” Senate Intelligence Committee members Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., said in a joint statement Friday, “and we believe Americans should know that this confirmation is just the tip of a larger iceberg.”