Despite dire warnings about consequences and withering attacks she would endure, Dianne Feinstein had no choice.
She felt compelled to release the Senate Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, otherwise known as the torture report.
After 22 years in Washington, Feinstein is the consummate insider, a middle-of-the-road Democrat known for her establishment bona fides. In this instance, she stood up to the elites, rare among politicians. It was the crowning achievement of her 50 years in public life.
Feinstein was busy Thursday attending a private reception where she toasted aides who produced the report, watching CIA Director John Brennan defend his agency at a press conference while her staffers tweeted fact-checking responses, and talking by phone with Brennan. At the end of it all, she gave me a call.
“The important thing is that America recognizes its mistakes and takes the steps necessary to correct them,” she said. “In so many countries, that doesn’t happen.”
It would not have happened here, either, if she had waited. As a consequence of Republican victories in November, Feinstein no longer will be Senate Intelligence Committee chair.
Her replacement, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, warned that the report “endangers our officers and allies in a blatant attempt to smear the Bush administration.”
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a statement saying “this report will damage U.S. national security and jeopardize American lives.”
Torture is part of the partisan divide, alas, although not that long ago, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture and Inhuman Treatment or Punishment. Apologists call what happened from 2002 to 2007 “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or even more Orwellian, “EIT.” Feinstein made clear her view by releasing the 500-page summary of the sealed 6,700-page investigation.
There’s this on Page 41: “‘So it begins,’ a medical officer wrote, ‘The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling, and small box periods. (Abu Zubaydali) seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly.
“NO useful information so far. … He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing.”
And on Page 114: “alNashiri launched a short-lived hunger strike, and the CIA responded by force feeding him rectally.”
And on Page 115: “Majid Khan was then subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration, which included two bottles of Ensure. Later that same day, Majid Khan’s ‘lunch tray,’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was ‘pureed’ and rectally infused.”
What kind of pervert would imagine such treatment?
During the five years in which the report was in the making, Feinstein and her staff faced leak investigations, dissembling, redaction, stonewalling. A few days before the report’s release, Secretary of State John Kerry, the epitome of the establishment, called to impress upon Feinstein the risks entailed in releasing the report.
It’s not as if ISIS terrorists were unaware of the torture, she told me. Books had been written. She was on a mission; principles were at stake. Congressional committees have oversight responsibility. She takes that seriously.
“We were stiffed for so long,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein, at 81, is tougher than when I met her 30 years ago, though the San Francisco mayor had become hardened by the craziness of the times. She began that first interview by sternly saying she hoped I was prepared. She was getting ready for the Democratic National Convention, hosted that year in her city. No time for small talk.
In a 1994 biography, “Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry,” former San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor Jerry Roberts recounts that Feinstein had been a target of the New World Liberation Front in the middle 1970s, and that her daughter found a bomb at the family home. Feinstein began packing a .38 after the windows were shot out of her vacation house.
And there was the awful day in November 1978, when Supervisor Feinstein tried to find a pulse in Supervisor Harvey Milk after Dan White shot him five times and assassinated Mayor George Moscone.
Roberts wrote that Gov. Pat Brown in 1962 appointed her to her first government job, on a board that reviewed prison sentences. In 1966, she became part of a commission that investigated San Francisco jail conditions.
The wretched conditions she documented as she started her public life were minor compared to what she discovered as her career nears its end, though, as Roberts wrote recently, it makes an interesting narrative.
On Thursday, Brennan acknowledged that “the cause-and-effect relationship between the use of EITs and useful information subsequently provided by the detainee is, in my view, unknowable.” Feinstein believes it is known. The pragmatist said torture fails to produce useful information.
“In this country, violence is glorified,” she said, a reference to the facile Hollywood notion that torture works. “The problem is that violence in this area doesn’t solve anything.”
Upon taking office, President Barack Obama banned enhanced interrogation techniques. But that’s not enough. Any future president could repeal the order. Feinstein will push legislation that would enshrine the prohibition next year. Good luck in the new Congress.
Burr, the incoming intelligence committee chairman, said Feinstein’s torture report will be “a footnote in history.” Willfully forgetful leaders repeat mistakes. That’s unfortunate. But it would not be for lack of effort on the part of the gutsy senator from San Francisco, whose choice was to provide a historic lesson on the good that a public servant can do.
Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.