The Feinstein rule: Spying is fine until it happens to you

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's accusation that the Central Intelligence Agency has illegally spied on Congress has caused everyone from South Carolina's hawkish Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham to on-the-run whistleblower Edward Snowden to weigh in.

Ms. Feinstein, a Democrat, chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. She claims there is evidence that the CIA conducted surveillance on committee staffers who were looking through classified documents related to the spy agency's interrogation and detention practices during the administration of President George W. Bush. CIA chief John Brennan claims his people were just trying to find out how Senator Feinstein's crew got hold of an internal review document they were not supposed to have. Senator Feinstein thinks it is more serious than that.


"I have grave concerns that the CIA search may well have violated the separation of powers principles," Ms. Feinstein said in a speech on the Senate floor. "I am not taking it lightly."

In comments to reporters, Mr. Graham was even more dramatic. "This is Richard Nixon stuff," Senator Graham said. "This is dangerous to the democracy. Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it's true. If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA."


Meanwhile, speaking to NBC from his exile in Moscow, Mr. Snowden, said, "It's clear the CIA was trying to play 'keep away' with documents relevant to an investigation by their overseers in Congress, and that's a serious constitutional concern." But the ex-National Security Administration contractor who fled the country after exposing startling details of American and British spying activities said he found it ironic that Senator Feinstein "does not care at all that the rights of millions of ordinary citizens are violated by our spies, but suddenly it's a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them."

Ms. Feinstein has been a strong supporter of surveillance programs as a necessary weapon in the fight against terrorists. In that cause, amassing a mountain of private phone records is justified, in the senator's view, but hacking into the Senate computer system is quite another matter. It's a violation of the Constitution and breaks various federal laws, including a presidential order against domestic surveillance, Ms. Feinstein says.

Other senators -- including odd bedfellows Mike Lee, the tea party Republican from Utah, and Colorado's Mark Udall, who hails from a family of distinguished Democrats -- said unchecked spying activities are wrong whether the targets are senators or private citizens.

"It's outrageous when this happens to Congress, and it's outrageous when this happens to the American people," Mr. Lee said to the Huffington Post.

In the case of the Senate spying, the alleged outrage could land Mr. Brennan and the CIA in hot water with the U.S. Justice Department. However, unless someone declares an end to the War on Terror, America's spies are not likely to find themselves prevented from snooping just about anywhere they believe they need to snoop.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to to see more of his work.