Feinstein at Stanford: U.S. needs to track possible terrorists

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told a Stanford audience Thursday that mass surveillance programs are designed to find possible terrorists, not snoop on American citizens.

She pointed to the rise of groups like ISIS – now in 12 countries, she said – and the gruesome spectacles of their brand of terrorism as proof that the world is more dangerous than ever.

"I don't think during my lifetime I've ever seen the degree of evil that is out there in the world today," said Feinstein, noting mass murders and beheadings of innocent civilians, including children. "These [surveillance] programs aim to protect this country, pure and simple. They're not aimed to go after Americans."

Feinstein was the final speaker in the yearlong series titled "The Security Conundrum." She spoke in a colloquy format with Stanford's Philip Taubman, consulting professor at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein was the final speaker in the yearlong series titled 'The Security Conundrum.' 

The discussion comes during a national debate on how to strike the right balance between security and liberty when technology now makes it possible for the government to collect phone and email data on citizens. With the USA Freedom Act expiring on June 1, Congress is considering legislation to reform the National Security Agency's mass surveillance program.

"We recognize that some reform is in order," said Feinstein, who plans to fly back to Washington for a rare Sunday Senate session on the expiring law.

"The big reform is that the data would be held by the phone companies and not the NSA," she said. If red flags resulted in queries, then warrants would have to be approved.

She took issue with descriptions of those programs as "mass surveillance." In 2013, warrants were sought in just 12 cases out of 288 queries about possible suspects. She said it is a selective process to find a suspect who raises enough concerns to trigger a query.

Feinstein's talk, titled "Congressional Oversight and the Intelligence Community," was held at CEMEX Auditorium.

Feinstein served as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2009 to 2014 and is now the ranking minority member. She played a leading role in the Senate investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency detention and interrogation program following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

'Miscarriages of justice'

Taubman asked Feinstein if she was worried that the surveillance programs could track law-abiding citizens, like more primitive efforts in the 1960s and '70s that targeted political and civil rights groups. Feinstein acknowledged that abuses happened in the past, but that congressional oversight of the programs – as is the case today – is essential to a fair process.

In particular, Feinstein decried the government's interrogation process of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay that resulted in claims of torture. Her committee reviewed considerable intelligence data on that issue. "We found there were terrible miscarriages of justice," she said.

She described intelligence agencies as akin to "presidents" in the power they wield. "How do you make these agencies follow the law?" she asked. The only way is to "get in deep enough and close enough" to make it impossible for them to tell an "untruth" in a congressional hearing, she said.

Taubman suggested that it's extremely hard for a few dozen congressional staffers and members to oversee large agencies that employ thousands of people. "You're outgunned," he said.

Feinstein replied that "we have to look beyond the hearing." She said bipartisanship and a focus on producing effective legislation that addresses real problems is critical. "That's the nature of what we do."

She added that no other country in the world has an intelligence committee with as strong an oversight function as does the United States. China and Russia, for example, have growing intelligence agencies but no one watching them.

Feinstein agreed with Taubman that too much secrecy is detrimental to a democratic society. She said she wished she would have held more open, public meetings while in charge of the intelligence committee.

Feinstein expects that renewing the legislation will depend on perhaps three votes in the Senate. "It's possible. If not, the law ends at midnight and that creates a chink in our armor. There's no question in my mind," she said.

Feinstein said there is a "backup" bill that is similar to the USA Freedom Act, but she would prefer to reform the original legislation.

Taubman asked her if the surveillance efforts were actually preventing terrorist acts.

Feinstein said that people are arrested every week under the program, and that relevant information also goes to other countries to help them.

But more than ever, she noted, it's the private sector – not the government – that is extremely enterprising in collecting vast amounts of data from people, such as how they use their cellphones or surf the web.

CIA, China an issue

A California Democrat and Stanford graduate, Feinstein has served in the U.S. Senate since 1993.

When asked why she continues to work as a public servant, she said that 9/11 was a pivotal point in her life. That tragic event and flawed intelligence regarding the justification for the war in Iraq convinced her that a senior position on the intelligence committee would give her a way to help protect her country and fellow citizens.

Taubman expressed amazement that the CIA was actually spying on Feinstein's committee during its review of the hostage intelligence data.

"It was a real dust-up, there's no question about. I think it was a real violation of the separation of powers," she said.

On other issues, such as the rise of China, Feinstein said that country is now practicing "soft power" and flexing its muscles in the South China Sea. Plus, China is "eating our lunch" in regard to cybersecurity.

"I am very worried," she said. "I do not see China as a necessary enemy, but it seems to be going the opposite direction now."

In addition to CISAC, sponsors of "The Security Conundrum" series included the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Hoover InstitutionStanford Continuing StudiesStanford in Government and Stanford Law School.

The series "was designed to be an open inquiry in the ongoing debate on how to balance security and liberty," said Amy Zegart, co-director of CISAC and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

This year the series has also included Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA; journalist Barton Gellman; and former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.