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By Emma Armstrong, ’18

At the final installment of the Security Conundrum speaker series on Thursday, May 28, Senator Dianne Feinstein, ’55 (D-CA), former chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, discussed the efficacy of surveillance programs, government oversight, and bipartisanship. Senator Feinstein pointed out the timeliness of the conversation, noting that Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the legislation that allows the National Security Agency to collect metadata, would expire the Sunday after the event if the Senate was not able to reach an agreement to renew the law.

Senator Feinstein expressed frustration at the NSA’s collection of metadata being described as surveillance. “Surveillance is observation over a period of time up close and personal,” she said. “That’s not what this is.” When pressed to defend that statement, Senator Feinstein outlined the legal process by which NSA employees obtain probable cause warrants from the FISA court, explaining that warrants are required for any information beyond that provided by phone records. She said threats like ISIS necessitate a robust NSA security program. “I didn’t think in my time that I’d ever see the degree to which evil exists as it does out in the world today,” she said. She pointed to the beheadings, assassinations, and infiltration of various Middle Eastern nations by ISIS as a “personification of evil” that must be stopped. Though she expressed doubts that ISIS would attack the United States, she emphasized the ideological damage the group causes through its actions, which she said are in direct opposition to American values.

In response to a question regarding government oversight on security agencies such as the NSA and the CIA, Senator Feinstein spoke about her experiences as the chair of the SSCI and her role in the report on CIA torture. She described the difficulty of monitoring such large organizations while on a committee of only 15 senators. Senator Feinstein described oversight as “an imprecise science–not even a science.” Nonetheless, she pointed to the committee’s successful investigation of the CIA’s detention and interrogation methods, claiming that their findings, and the public’s ensuing outrage upon learning that the CIA was engaged in torture, were a definitive step in the direction of justice. She described the report as an important statement that the United States will never again perpetrate such injustice.

Senator Feinstein attributed the success of the investigation largely to the bipartisan efforts of her committee. She spoke specifically about Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who worked in concert with her to drive the investigation and defend the NSA phone records program. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) also helped to reform a field manual delineating proper methods of interrogation. A member of the audience asked Senator Feinstein if the torture report had the unintended consequence of undermining trust in American government. Senator Feinstein replied confidently that it is not congressional oversight, but the intense partisanship and lack of constructive discussion and progress, that prompts Americans to lose confidence in their government.

SIG cosponsored this event in partnership with the Hoover Institution, the Freeman Spogli Insitute for International Studies, the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford Law School, and Stanford Continuing Studies.

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