Jewish senators, typically frequent allies, are not aligned on data collection issue
WASHINGTON (JTA) – Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden have much in common. Both longtime U.S. senators are Democrats, Jewish and fiercely independent West Coasters.
As members of the Senate Intelligence Committee since before Sept. 11, 2001, they’re privy to classified materials describing the country’s radical changes in intelligence gathering.
Now the two are on opposite sides of the debate about the massive information-gathering machine that the intelligence community has been developing since 9/11.
Government agencies have been collecting troves of data on the phone calls of Americans – so-called “metadata,” including the length, origin and number of virtually every call in America, but not its content.
Disclosures about such efforts have reignited debate over where to draw the line between national security and individual privacy.
“It’s called protecting America,” Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a June 6 news conference, arguing that such data collection is routine.
But Wyden says the issue is protecting the rule of law, arguing that Americans don’t know enough to assess whether the government is protecting or violating their rights.
“There is a significant gap between what the American people and most members of Congress believe is legal under laws like the Patriot Act and how government agencies are interpreting the law,” says a statement on Wyden’s website.
The split between Feinstein and Wyden reflects the degree to which the intelligence-gathering debate is scrambling the predictable partisan positions taken on most big issues in today’s Washington – in this case, prompting liberals and conservatives to line up on all sides of the issue.
Friends of both senators – Feinstein of California and Wyden of Oregon – say their strikingly opposed positions result not only from their independent spirit, but also from strong beliefs forged by pre-congressional experiences.
In 1978, Feinstein was president of the San Francisco board of supervisors when a gunman entered City Hall and shot to death Harvey Milk, a fellow supervisor and gay activist, and Mayor George Moscone. Feinstein then succeeded Moscone as mayor.
Colleagues say the murders were formative for Feinstein, who was outraged that the killer, Dan White, claimed he was depressed and was convicted only of manslaughter. The incident continued to inform her positions after her election to the Senate in 1992, most prominently in her role advocating gun control since the Newtown, Conn., shooting last year.
Wyden, the child of Holocaust survivors, entered public service as a young professor of gerontology concerned about insurance scams targeting seniors.
Wyden founded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, a social justice group focused on the rights of older Americans, in the 1970s. In 1980, he was elected to the House, and to the Senate in 1996.
“He’s always been very much an independent thinker,” said Bob Horenstein, director of the Portland, Ore. Jewish Community Relations Council.
Wyden and Feinstein both have reputations for walking away from their parties – and their natural constituencies – on principle.
An outspoken death penalty advocate, Feinstein has close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – neither position is particularly popular in her northern California base. But she has also endorsed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for comprehensive peace in exchange for a return to 1967 borders, and cited Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon to explain her repeated bids to ban the export of those arms.
In 2011, Wyden unnerved his Democratic colleagues when he joined with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, in advocating for private options for seniors eligible for Medicare. Notably, the Gray Panthers, the organization that launched his public career, adamantly opposed the Wyden-Ryan proposal.
Wyden suggested in a lengthy response on the Huffington Post that he was not about to stop working with Republicans or anyone else if it would advance the rights of Americans.
“Because we worked together, Paul Ryan now knows more about the Medicare Guarantee and protecting seniors from unscrupulous insurance practices than he did before,” Wyden said. “If that is reflected in his budget this year, as someone who has been fighting for seniors since he was 27, I think that’s a step in the right direction.”