WASHINGTON -- 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.