Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden have a lot in common. Both are longtime U.S. senators, Democrats, Jewish and fiercely independent West Coasters.
They’ve both been members of the Senate Intelligence Committee since before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and are privy to classified materials that describe how the government systematized radical changes in intelligence-gathering in their wake.
Now the two lawmakers are on opposite sides of the debate over the massive information-vacuuming machine that the intelligence community has developed since those attacks. Government agencies have been collecting vast 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 — as well as information from the country’s leading Internet companies. A series of disclosures about such efforts has reignited debate over where to draw the line between national security and individual privacy.
“It’s called protecting America,” Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a June 6 press conference, arguing that the collection of metadata 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 their rights or violating them.
“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,” Wyden says in a lengthy page on his website outlining his efforts to make the government’s information-gathering practices more transparent.
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 both 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 fellow supervisor, Dan White, shot to death Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Feinstein succeeded Moscone as mayor.
Colleagues say the murders were formative for Feinstein, who was outraged that White was convicted only of manslaughter. The incident continued to inform her positions after her election to the Senate in 1992, most recently in the lead she has taken on gun control advocacy since last year’s Newtown school massacre.
Wyden, the child of German Holocaust survivors, entered public service through his activism as a young professor of gerontology concerned about insurance scams targeting seniors. He founded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, a social justice group focused on the rights of older Americans. In 1980, he was elected to the House, and then 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.
Feinstein is an outspoken advocate for the death penalty and has close ties to the centrist pro-Israel community and AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — positions that are not particularly popular among her Northern California base. But she also has endorsed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for comprehensive peace in exchange for a return to the 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.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, in advocating for private options for seniors eligible for Medicare.
“They’re both extremely principled, they do what they believe is right and they march to the tune of their own drummers, each of them,” said Mel Levin, former Democratic Congressman from Santa Monica.