Feinstein Flexes Muscle

Posted April 24, 2009 at 6:27pm

Never a shrinking violet, newly installed Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) hasn’t shied away from confronting a popular Democratic White House, particularly when she’s protecting her turf.

In taking over the panel this year, Feinstein’s aggressive but diplomatic style has been on display. She has called out the Obama administration for not consulting her before issuing public statements on who should run the CIA, and she made her feelings clear on how the government should go about evaluating the treatment of detainees under the Bush administration.

“She staunchly defends her institutional prerogatives, and she should,— one Democratic Senator said. “I think it probably helps the executive branch when they’re dealing with Congress to learn when they’re coming up short.—

Feinstein, now in her fourth term, downplayed her confrontations with the White House, however.

“I think that was really exaggerated,— she said, calling their failure to consult her on a couple of occasions “an oversight.—

But others acknowledged that Feinstein has a knack for being heard when she wants to be.

“Sen. Feinstein’s outspoken, and occasionally, there will be moments,— Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “But I think that at the end of day that she has a positive working relationship with the administration, and she’ll do a great job. I trust her.—

Feinstein caused a stir early in President Barack Obama’s tenure when she questioned the credentials of former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to head the CIA. But her star turn has arguably come in spearheading one of the most politically divisive investigations in a decade — an exhaustive look back at the interrogation techniques and alleged torture — conducted on “high-value— detainees in the war on terror.

In a letter last week to Obama, Feinstein warned the president to be careful about who he believed should be immune from prosecution for authorizing or participating in harsh interrogation tactics — that is, until she could complete her panel’s inquiry in an estimated six to eight months.

But the 75-year-old former mayor and rumored California gubernatorial hopeful had tried to appear respectful in handling her disagreements with the Obama White House — she ultimately supported Panetta, and last week’s letter to Obama was carefully crafted to not cause offense.

[IMGCAP(1)]For her efforts, Feinstein came out of last week as the voice of reason.

“If you’re going to look at the facts, don’t prejudge them before you look at them,— was Feinstein’s mantra last week as she urged restraint and a rejection of a “truth commission— investigation of potential detainee abuse.

Feinstein indicated that Obama’s decision more than a week ago to release the Bush Justice Department’s legal justifications for harsh interrogations has inflamed passions on both sides of the issue, but that she hopes her panel can temper that.

“The release of [those] memos is incendiary,— Feinstein said. “People see this … and it isn’t in any context. We have the ability to do it in a dispassionate, professional way.—

By contrast, the White House and Senate Democratic leaders waffled between supporting and ruling out the independent investigative commission as well as whether to prosecute those responsible for abusive interrogation techniques.

By the end of the week, Senate Democratic leaders and Obama appeared to be singing her tune —saying a truth commission was unnecessary right now and that Feinstein should be allowed to complete her review unfettered.

“I was very impressed with the conversation I had with Dianne Feinstein the last couple of days,— Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday. “She indicated to me what she was doing on the Intelligence Committee, the outline she had to complete this works sometime late this year. I think that’s really the direction that I’m going to follow closely.—

Feinstein persuaded Senate Democratic leaders to let her investigation run its course by arguing that a public commission would have trouble gaining access to the classified documents that her panel has, and that the cloak of secrecy the committee could offer would ensure honest and complete answers from witnesses.

“She really believes she’s getting to the heart of the question,— Durbin said.

Some Republicans have expressed pleasant surprise that Feinstein’s more measured approach to the issue has swayed Democratic leadership and tempered other Democrats’ calls for a more partisan-tinged investigation.

Though the investigation began under her committee predecessor, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Feinstein appears to be getting more cooperation from Republicans. She joined with ranking member Kit Bond (R-Mo.) to send out a joint announcement in March that the panel would review the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.

“She has all the Democratic and more liberal-leaning proclivities that you would expect from a Senator from California, but she’s reasonable and willing to listen,— said one knowledgeable GOP aide. “Rockefeller has a split personality — one personality that says, Let’s work together,’ and then when it goes public, he’s completely partisan and duplicitous.—

Bond said, through a spokeswoman, that he appreciates the fact that when he has a concern with something, he can work out an agreement with Feinstein and can be confident that she’ll stick to the deal.

He added that he is confident the inquiry into interrogation methods will be bipartisan.

“Dianne and I agree that politics should play no role in the Intelligence Committee, and this understanding has well-served our working relationship,— Bond said through the spokeswoman.

Feinstein enjoys a degree of respect from her GOP colleagues, largely because she has been willing to buck her own party in recent years in supporting federal judges whom others deemed too extreme or conservative. More recently, she ran afoul of Senate Democratic leaders when she began questioning the wisdom of passing a bill — heavily backed by organized labor — that would make it easier for workers to join a union.

But, her attention to detail on the committee has won solid marks on both sides of the aisle and may make her investigation into Bush-era detainee policy more successful than any other probe might be.

Intelligence member Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said he was stunned when he first joined the committee at how sharp Feinstein’s questioning of witnesses was. Whitehouse said he was stunned and impressed when he first joined the panel and observed Feinstein flip through her own classified notes and call out a witness on his apparent inconsistency.

“She’s at a position in her career where if she wanted to she could coast and read off staff questions,— Whitehouse said. “So the fact that she is so well-prepared that she could flip back to that page and pull out a particular thing, told me a lot about her degree of effort and diligence, which was a really, really impressive lesson. It sets the bar mighty high.—