WASHINGTON — The senator from California delivered a speech the size of an earthquake under the Capitol dome, shaking down the wall of silence surrounding the Central Intelligence Agency. Word flew, jaws dropped. Senate Democrats gave her a standing ovation at their weekly lunch.
Dianne Feinstein, 80, rose to deliver the speech of her life Tuesday, a ringing vindication of Congress's constitutional role in watching over our spy agency. In an eerie echo, her tone reminded me of the famous "Declaration of Conscience" speech given by Senator Margaret Chase Smith at the 20th century's midpoint.
The speech set off a donnybrook, with President Obama as the missing man. His pugnacious CIA director, John Brennan, got busy denying virtually all of what the senator said, like a good company man.
Still haunting some lawmakers: What dirty deeds were done in the nation's name to avenge 9/11? After the terrorist attacks, the CIA ran amok and then destroyed evidence of its "enhanced" interrogations. Yet we know the agency engaged in waterboarding and other kinds of torture — counterterrorism — during the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney White House years. Those practices officially ended in 2009.
The abuses the CIA committed in the dark may soon see some daylight as thousands of documents surface in a Senate report Feinstein is directing. If declassified, she declared, "We will be able to ensure that an un-American, brutal program of detention and interrogation will never again be considered." She hinted at "horrible details."
Ironically, "DiFi" has chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee for several years and always stoutly defended the intelligence community. She has, as they say, "played ball" with the spooks and had no problem with National Security Agency electronic surveillance. Feinstein was the best friend Langley had on Capitol Hill, even defending drones. Few dreamed that she would emerge as the CIA's fiercest critic in a clarion call.
But the lady from San Francisco turned, and now a plot worthy of Hollywood is the talk of Washington. Feinstein rebuked the agency for spying on the congressional investigation she's running, breaking the law with clandestine computer searches. The stakes in the clash between branches of government just got real high.
Adding a dash of mystery, the McClatchy Washington bureau broke the story that the White House has withheld thousands of documents, related to Feinstein's investigation, from her committee.
Not to be outdone, the agency struck back by referring some of her Senate staffers to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges in obtaining intelligence documents. This is where it got personal. Her voice steely, Feinstein scolded the CIA's lead lawyer (not by name) for placing "dedicated" public servants in "legal jeopardy." She noted for the record that he was once the counterterrorism unit's chief lawyer. Funny how that is, with his traces at the scenes under scrutiny.
As Feinstein finished, Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., hailed her in a rare tribute. In 40 years, Leahy said, "I cannot think of any speech by any member of either party as important as the one that senator from California just gave." Democratic Leader Harry Reid also stood: "No one has more courage and conviction than Dianne Feinstein."
Feinstein's stature in the Senate goes beyond her tall height and dates back to 1992, when she was elected in the "Year of the Woman." Then there were only a handful of Democratic women among 100 senators, and only one Republican, from a Kansas political family. In other words, Feinstein arrived on the front lines of unlocking doors to welcome women. Today there are twenty women senators serving on the old "plantation," as they call the Senate.
Feinstein has reached for the future, but she also awakened the past, a grand hour in history. Outside the chamber is a striking portrait of "the lady from Maine," Senator Margaret Chase Smith.
Back on June 1, 1950, she was the only woman senator, and it took one to speak truth to power. Smith warned of "the end of everything we Americans hold dear," meaning the winds of McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., himself saw Smith on her way and asked if she was going to make a speech.
"Yes, and you will not like it," she answered.
To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.