Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has shown a renewed post-election feistiness over the scandal swirling around former CIA Director David Petraeus that could translate to holding the administration accountable for this and the Benghazi scandal.
Freshly re-elected to another six-year term and pushing 80 years old, Feinstein would have little to lose by not doing the White House’s bidding — pressure that was evident when she backed off from claims that the executive branch was leaking sensitive information.
“I think the White House has to understand that some of this is coming from their ranks,” Feinstein said in an address at the World Affairs Council in July.
Feinstein was irked by Mitt Romney using her statement on the campaign trail, and issued her own statement saying that after noting she didn’t believe President Obama personally leaked classified information: “I shouldn’t have speculated beyond that, because the fact of the matter is I don’t know the source of the leaks.”
“It looks like President Obama has given Dianne Feinstein the Cory Booker treatment,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams fired back in a statement, referring to the Newark mayor after Booker called attacks on Romney’s Bain record “nauseating.”
Tomorrow, Feinstein will be front and center — albeit in a highly anticipated classified hearing behind closed doors — as her Senate Intelligence Committee examines the Benghazi attacks. The House Intelligence Committee will be doing the same, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold its own examination in open session.
The Senate witness line-up was supposed to include Petraeus, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen. After the scandal broke Friday, Petraeus was replaced with Acting CIA Director Mike Morell.
Lawmakers cried foul — especially since Petraeus had gone on a fact-finding mission to Libya days before the election.
Feinstein noted Monday that she needs to see his report on that trip to help get to the bottom of Benghazi, but has been stonewalled.
“I believe that there is a trip report. We have asked to see the trip report. One person tells me he has read it, and then we tried to get it and they tell me it hasn’t been done,” she said on MSNBC. “That’s unacceptable. We are entitled to this trip report. And if we have to go to the floor of the Senate on a subpoena, we will do just that… for the very reason that it may have some very relevant information to what happened in Benghazi.”
Yesterday she laid down the gauntlet by announcing she and the Intelligence Committee’s vice-chairman, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), were formulating a plan to get to talk to Petraeus one way or another.
This morning, the pressure apparently paid off as it was reported Petraeus is willing to speak with the Senate panel, perhaps as soon as Friday. The House Intelligence Committee announced this evening that Petraeus will speak before their panel, behind closed doors, early Friday.
“I think she has been designated as the hearings point person for the Dems, because nothing that is said in her hearings can be released publicly anyway,” a Senate GOP aide told PJM late last month. “Clever.”
But with campaign-season sensitivities out of the way and at a pretty untouchable point in her career, Feinstein’s tough talk could turn into action that cements her status as a valuable ally for those wanting to get to the bottom of both the Benghazi and Petraeus scandals — even if they wind up intersecting.
Feinstein has also called for a who-knew-what-when investigation into the Petraeus affair, a probe which could reveal that damaging news of the scandal was withheld pre-election — either by Attorney General Eric Holder not telling the president, or the president having been told after all but deciding to sit on it until Election Day.
Whatever that investigation reveals, it’s a fact that the heads of the congressional intelligence committees first found out about the scandal when reporters began calling them for comment Friday — notification that’s required by law when operational security may have been compromised.
“It’s been like peeling an onion,” Feinstein said Monday. “Every day, another peel comes off, and you see a whole new dimension to this.”
It’s easy to write off this public show of concern and disgust for procedures not followed as an act, but Republicans also regard the current composition of the Senate and House Intelligence committees to be the most bipartisan, cooperative intel panels in a long time.
“Especially those that are in charge of overseeing this — the chairmen and ranking members — they do not want to be anywhere near a cover-up,” House Intelligence Committee member Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) told PJM during the pre-election Benghazi furor.
Nunes predicted at the time that especially once the campaigning was out of the way, more Democrats would come out to support the Benghazi probe.
“The last thing any of us want to do is throw away the good bipartisanship we’ve built up over last two years,” he said of the intelligence committees.
In the days since the Petraeus scandal broke, you can see Republicans routinely offering praise and name-dropping for Feinstein’s messaging and efforts — carefully, without going so far as suggesting she’s defying her party or administration.
“I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to put aside any partisanship and find a way forward,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said at a press conference on Benghazi today. “Dianne Feinstein has been terrific.”
“I was with Diane Feinstein, we were both on a Sunday program this week, and certainly watched her comments, but talked to her back before we both went on and it’s almost beyond belief that this would be happening and the leaders of our intelligence community would not know that it’s happening,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday on MSNBC.
“I agree with Dianne Feinstein — pretty hard to come up with any legitimate reason not to know what General Petraeus saw and learned while he was in Libya,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Tuesday on Fox.
“As Senator Feinstein said over the weekend, she didn’t even know what the White House knew as it related to General Petraeus,” Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) said Tuesday on CNN.
“And if they were not informed, and it looks like Senator Feinstein was not informed, then something is grossly wrong. Those people have to know,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) Tuesday on CNN.
“I expect at some point former General Petraeus is going to need talk of it and there’s a bipartisan call for that. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the intelligence committee, has said that, as well. The American people need to know what happened,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Monday on Fox.
But even Democrats, not talking much about Benghazi these days, acknowledged that Feinstein is leading the charge on the Petraeus scandal notification question that might not bode well for the administration.
“We’re going to have, I’m sure, the intelligence committee involved in this. I heard Senator Feinstein talking about her plans, so I think that we will get to the bottom of this,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said on CNN Tuesday.
“I think Dianne Feinstein is right to be miffed,” former Rep. Jane Harman said today on CNN. “I think that she and Saxby Chambliss should and will hold closed-door hearings and get all the facts.”
Even though she clearly supports her party, Feinstein has been critical of the administration in an election year, if not widely publicized.
In January, Feinstein argued at a hearing that the White House was trying to paint a rosier public picture of the situation in Afghanistan in paving the way for a 2014 exit than intelligence and military leaders really believe behind closed doors.
“In Afghanistan, the surge of U.S. forces that began in ’09 has produced meaningful gains. That said, I think we’re all very concerned about what will happen in 2014 when we reduce our troop commitment and President [Hamid] Karzai’s term is up,” Feinstein said.
In her questioning of Petraeus, she even took a swipe at the intelligence leaks.
“Once again, this committee has been put in a difficult position of trying to avoid any mention of classified matters when various parts of the executive branch may be doing somewhat the opposite,” Feinstein said.
The current commander in Afghanistan now embroiled in the Petraeus scandal, Gen. John Allen, was supposed to issue recommendations on the Afghanistan timeline to the White House before the end of the year. Allen has expressed concern about Taliban infiltration of the Afghan National Security Forces and attacks staged on American forces from within those ranks.
Feinstein has even been calling out the administration on environmental overreach. In a May letter to the California Fish and Game Commission regarding permit renewal for an oyster farm, she stated that scientific data being used to reject the business’ request “had been manipulated” to show adverse environmental impact.
“The Park Service has repeatedly misrepresented the scientific record since 2006 to portray the farm as environmentally harmful, and it is my belief that the Park Service is doing everything it can to justify ending the oyster farm’s operations,” she wrote. “…The Park Service’s repeated misrepresentations of the scientific record have damaged its trust with the local community, and stained its reputation for even-handed treatment of competing uses of public resources.”
In a February op-ed in the Marin Independent Journal, Feinstein again criticized National Park Service overreach against business, including a line that could have come from any number of Republicans on the Hill fighting odious environmental regs: “We should all agree that decisions based on science we know to be flawed is a stark violation of the public trust.”