THE BLOG
10/29/2013 03:10 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2013

Feinstein, McCain Get Off the NSA Bus

Nothing like a growing global scandal to alter opinions. There's been no senator more publicly supportive of the National Security Agency during the repeated rounds of controversy from the Snowden revelations about its massively expansive surveillance programs than Senator Dianne Feinstein.

She's been chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the post the moderate California Democrat wanted for years, since January 2009. As the Snowden revelations began, she branded the ex-NSA analyst a "traitor." She vociferously defended the NSA and echoed the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, in claims that the then secret surveillance programs foiled some 50 terrorist attacks in still classified operations. Of course, this approach to Total Information Awareness, a disavowed Bush/Cheney Administration project, was an utter failure in detecting the Tsarnaev brothers' attack on the Boston Marathon, even though Russian intelligence gave us not one but two warnings about their jihadist bent. (Alexander, incidentally, proudly but quite oddly just claimed "Not one major terrorist incident in the United States since 9/11. That's not by accident.")

Feinstein, however, with the revelations of spying on the leaders of American allies, most dramatically the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is off the NSA bus. She says any spying on friendly heads of government and allies -- 35 countries in all, friendly or not, are said to be involved -- is absolutely unacceptable. "With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies -- including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany -- let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," Feinstein said. "Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or e-mails of friendly presidents and prime ministers."

Insisting she had no idea that the NSA had been surveilling Merkel since 2002, three years before the head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union became chancellor of Germany, Feinstein now says she will conduct "a total review of all intelligence programs."

Feinstein has been a reliable intelligence establishment defender who has embraced the glittering Georgetown life. After barely surviving a 1994 challenge from super-rich Republican Michael Huffington, she has has shied away from messy races for governor which many wanted her to enter, such as the 2003 recall and the 2010 race to replace outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, content with her prominent place in the Washington firmament.

She is anything but a radical or even iconoclast. While she presided over the 2005 wedding of Jerry Brown and Anne Gust Brown -- like Brown she's a native San Franciscan, even serving as the city's mayor after the assassination of George Moscone by a disgruntled conservative politician -- she is far more conventional than anything the term "San Francisco" conjures up.

Of course, the international politics around the surveillance controversy are becoming very dramatic. That's why another reliable national security state ally, Senator John McCain, said yesterday that Congress needs a special select committee to investigate the spying on Merkel and other allies as part of a review of what has become a vastly expansive post-9/11 surveillance apparatus.

"We have always eavesdropped on people around the world. But the advance of technology has given us enormous capabilities, and I think you might make an argument that some of this capability has been very offensive both to us and to our allies," McCain said.

Tempers are running high around the world, with Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff working with other national leaders on a United Nations resolution, the European Union, its summit last week consumed by the revelations, insisting that the U.S. agree to a no-spying pact on friends, and a delegate of top German intelligence officials dispatched for a week to Washington to get to the bottom of things. And there is talk of turning away from U.S. equipment vendors, from U.S. information networks, to insure that what looks to many like a compromised American industry doesn't facilitate ongoing spying by the NSA.

Perhaps most dramatic of all is this Der Spiegel cover story, entitled "Das Nest," says that the U.S. embassy where my old friend John Emerson is America's new ambassador, is really the NSA's secret spy base in Berlin. And that NSA and CIA operatives with a joint Special Collection Service use highly sophisticated gear within and atop the embassy -- which is so well situated that it is practically next to the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate -- to monitor the German government. Including that now famous mobile phone of Angela Merkel's.

So basically all hell is breaking loose as a result.

Of course, intelligence is part of the international system. It's important to know what the players are doing and why, even if they are friends. Though of course this has nothing to do with the standard invocation of 9/11 as rationale for the vast expansion of the surveillance state. While some of the 9/11 hijackers made their way through Germany, no one serious could suggest that justifies bugging Merkel for the past decade or so. Or even for a second.

Why did we do it? Why did we veer so far over the mark between inquiry and outright spying. Well, we may be getting some specific answers to that question. In the meantime, I think the broad answer is that we did it because we could do it. Our vast technological reach, evidently an order of magnitude or two greater than our allies, enabled us to tap in globally.

And the endless appetite for information is like greed in general. If it can be fed, it will be, even if we lack the wit to make real sense of it all.

Likely as not, there are even more specific reasons than those, reasons which may look awfully petty and short-sightedly self-interested in comparison to the loss of trust in America that these actions is engendering. But we'll be getting to that.

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