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Privacy advocates call Feinstein's rant on CIA spying hypocritical

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 2003 GMT (0403 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Privacy and civil liberties advocates skeptical of Feinstein's CIA snooping complaints
  • Advocates say lawmakers should feel equally outraged at snooping on private citizens
  • They hail Feinstein's critique of the CIA's stonewalling, snooping and want more to be done
  • Public and congressional pressure the key to reforms, privacy advocates say

Washington (CNN) -- When "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart tore into Sen. Dianne Feinstein for complaining about the CIA removing classified documents from her staff's computers after giving the intelligence community a pass on spying on private citizens, he joined a chorus of civil liberties advocates who say she's being hypocritical.

"What is incredible about these accusations is they are not coming from Senator Ron 'Privacy is important' Wyden or Senator Rand 'Don't kill me with a flying robot' Paul," Stewart said. "They are coming from Dianne 'So the NSA is looking at your data' Feinstein."

He then played a montage of clips showing the many instances in which Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has supported National Security Agency snooping on private citizens.

Those who have long complained that neither Congress nor the intelligence community have done enough to safeguard the rights of private citizens find it ironic that, for months, the spy agency and the Intelligence Committee charged with its oversight have waged a behind-the-scenes battle accusing each other of improper snooping.

The Justice Department is weighing whether to investigate CIA claims that Intelligence Committee staffers accessed material they shouldn't have seen while reviewing millions of documents at a Virginia facility.

Those same advocates find the complaints of Feinstein, who has been one of the intelligence community's staunchest supporters, as especially disingenuous.

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"As a privacy advocate, she has gotten angry about spying on (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and spying on herself. But being OK with spying on the rest of us is questionable," said Mike German, a former FBI agent and a fellow with the Brenna Center for Justice.

Feinstein did not respond to a request for comment.

During a fiery speech Tuesday that stunned lawmakers and members of the intelligence community, Feinstein, a California Democrat, accused the CIA of secretly taking classified documents from her staff's computers during an oversight investigation.

Her comments made public a private long running saga over the review of documents related to the post 9/11 Bush administration program for questioning terror suspects -- a practice that ultimately was ended by President Barack Obama in 2009.

CIA Director John Brennan challenged Feinstein's claims.

What are the CIA and Senate fighting about?

Privacy advocates and civil liberty groups hailed Feinstein's diatribe against the CIA's tactics as a watershed moment in urging stronger checks on the executive branch's spying practices.

"It's highly significant that a senator with Senator Feinstein's credentials in working with the intelligence community would go to the Senate floor and make a constitutionally protected speech about how the CIA is undermining a critical oversight role," said Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel with the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology.

A number of her congressional colleagues applauded her speech as well.

"Senator Feinstein is a dedicated public servant who deserves enormous credit for speaking publicly about this dispute, which goes to the heart of the separation of powers," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told CNN in a statement.

"She has spoken to the conscience of every senator, of both parties. She is standing up for the principles on which this country was founded, and the rest of us must follow her example," he said.

Leahy has been a steady critic of the intelligence community's practices -- especially the sweeping NSA surveillance programs publicized by Edward Snowden's leaks -- and has stridently questioned claims by national security officials that the government's bulk collection of phone records thwarted terror attacks.

However, privacy and civil liberties advocates took issue with Feinstein's pique. They also see a double-standard in the outrage of other lawmakers such as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who also called the allegations "dangerous to a democracy."

These types of actions have always been "dangerous to a democracy" even when they happen to ordinary private citizens, civil liberties advocates 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," Snowden, a former NSA contractor, told NBC News in a statement Tuesday.

"But it's equally if not more concerning that we're seeing another 'Merkel Effect,' where an elected official 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," he said.

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Privacy and civil liberty advocates hope more oversight will occur now that members of Congress have gotten a personal taste of intelligence gathering practices they find objectionable.

"We've had 12 years of an intelligence community acting with very little checks on it," said Chris Anders, a senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union. "The reason they are so out of control is that there's been very little oversight being exercised by Congress or the courts."

Outrage by both lawmakers and private citizens will build support for reforms, German said.

"Hopefully, now that Feinstein has this new found skepticism, she will open the lid so that the American public can see what has been done in their name in the past ten years," German said.

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