Behind Dianne Feinstein’s Calculated Rebuke of the White House

The Intelligence chair has been a defender of administration practices. But when Obama failed to warn her about the Bergdahl swap, he met the limit of her patience.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 11: U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) walks off the Senate floor after speaking about the CIA on March 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Feinstein who is Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee has accused the CIA of secretly removing documents from computers used by the committee. 
National Journal
Michael Catalini Elahe Izadi
June 22, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

Di­anne Fein­stein wanted the White House off her lawn.

In the hours after the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­vealed that it had traded five Taliban sus­pects for Bowe Ber­g­dahl, the in­flu­en­tial Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chair­wo­man went pub­lic with her an­ger. The pres­id­ent should have no­ti­fied her, Fein­stein said in a pub­lic re­buke that was so odd be­cause it was so rare.

And as if to un­der­line the vir­tue of her po­s­i­tion, she said White House na­tion­al se­cur­ity aide Tony Blinken called to apo­lo­gize for not alert­ing her to the swap.

Sud­denly, there was un­com­mon day­light between Pres­id­ent Obama and the Demo­crat who serves as his chief con­gres­sion­al de­fend­er on all se­cur­ity and in­tel­li­gence is­sues.

“She didn’t need to go as far as she did,” com­plained one seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide.

Oth­er aides echoed the sen­ti­ment. They com­plained that Fein­stein’s cri­ti­cism — char­ac­ter­ized as sharp by seni­or Demo­crat­ic staff — made little sense in an en­vir­on­ment where Re­pub­lic­ans seize on any con­tro­ver­sial White House man­euver or mis­step as a po­ten­tial cam­paign-trail boon.

And in­deed, they latched onto it.

“What’s per­plex­ing, not only was it the pres­id­ent, but the pres­id­ent of the same party, which left a lot of un­answered ques­tions and cre­ated a firestorm,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, him­self a former head of the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

Fein­stein has since tried to rein in her pique and re­write the epis­ode. “I was just asked a ques­tion,” she said when asked about re­ports that she was at odds with the White House over Ber­g­dahl. “I gave a simple an­swer. I’m not go­ing to make an­oth­er com­ment. Thank you.”

And when pressed, she went so far as to de­fend the White House’s lack of com­mu­nic­a­tion.

“Wherever I go, that’s the ques­tion. ‘Has the White House called you? Well, why hasn’t the White House called you?’ I mean, please,” Fein­stein said. “The White House has a lot of things to do. I just spoke with the White House chief of staff, the seni­or [Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil] people. This hap­pens all the time. So please don’t make that an is­sue. There are a lot of things that are is­sues. This is not one of them.”

But those who know Fein­stein say she knew what she was do­ing when she pub­licly chal­lenged the White House for fail­ing to no­ti­fy Con­gress be­fore let­ting ter­ror­ism sus­pects leave Guantanamo. It was a product of the frus­tra­tion that all of them feel as ad­min­is­tra­tions re­peatedly and in­creas­ingly cut Con­gress out of the loop on in­tel­li­gence mat­ters.

The only dif­fer­ence is that this time, the slight was great enough to irk even this White House’s great de­fend­er.

“I’m just telling you that we’ve been bat­tling,” said Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller of West Vir­gin­ia, who chaired the com­mit­tee from 2007 to 2009. “That’s all I’ve done. I was on the com­mit­tee be­fore 9/11, and all we’ve done is fight this is­sue, of the ad­min­is­tra­tion not really want­ing to brief the Sen­ate.”

Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, de­fen­ded Fein­stein’s re­buke. “Di­anne Fein­stein is a very thought­ful sen­at­or. She thinks through every is­sue very thor­oughly and she has the be­ne­fit just like I do of an ex­tens­ive back­ground on this pro­pos­al as well as the in­di­vidu­als in­volved,” he said. “Like me she’s nev­er ques­tioned the Ber­g­dahl side of it oth­er than they told us they were gonna give us 30 days’ no­tice and they didn’t. And that’s not right. That’s stick­ing it in the eye of Con­gress and they shouldn’t have done that.”

The fal­lout from the Ber­g­dahl swap has cer­tainly strained the con­gres­sion­al-White House re­la­tion­ship, mem­bers say, but to what ex­tent is un­cer­tain. On a com­mit­tee whose work is clas­si­fied and hear­ings are be­hind closed doors, aides and pan­el mem­bers are re­luct­ant to talk about ten­sion with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. “In re­cent his­tory “¦ this is un­pre­ced­en­ted,” said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kan­sas, a former GOP chair­man of the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

But had Fein­stein or any oth­er sen­at­or wanted to pound the ad­min­is­tra­tion fur­ther, they could have when the Sen­ate con­sidered the in­tel­li­gence reau­thor­iz­a­tion, which passed un­an­im­ously just this month.

For its part, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion denies its re­la­tion­ship with Fein­stein took a hit over the Ber­g­dahl swap. And, like Fein­stein, White House of­fi­cials are sug­gest­ing the split is not an is­sue.

“The fact that this part­ner­ship per­sists, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye, is a test­a­ment to the strength of this vi­tal re­la­tion­ship and our shared com­mit­ment to keep­ing the na­tion safe,” said White House spokes­man Josh Earn­est.

Cer­tainly, Fein­stein’s re­la­tion­ship with the White House has had ups and downs. She was a staunch de­fend­er of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­s­i­tions after the leak of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s data-col­lec­tion pro­gram last year. She also agrees with the pres­id­ent that the de­ten­tion cen­ter in Guantanamo Bay should be closed. But in March, Fein­stein took to the Sen­ate floor to ac­cuse the CIA of search­ing In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee staff com­puters to al­legedly un­der­mine a con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tion.

And in 2009, when Obama tapped Le­on Pan­etta, a former mem­ber of Con­gress and Clin­ton White House chief of staff, Fein­stein ob­jec­ted, ar­guing the pres­id­ent should have chosen someone from with­in the in­tel com­munity. Her ob­jec­tions were not enough to de­rail Pan­etta, but they did res­ult in an apo­logy from Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden, which led to Fein­stein say­ing she would sup­port the pres­id­ent’s choice.

In­deed, it seems Sen­ate Demo­crats, Fein­stein in­cluded, are will­ing to for­give the White House — if only after cre­at­ing a stir that pre­cedes an apo­logy.

“The White house, to their cred­it, has said, ‘We made a mis­take,’ ” said Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ron Wyden. “So I al­ways jump up and go from here.”

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