Washington — 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 also both been members of the Senate Intelligence Committee since before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and 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,” says a lengthy page on Wyden’s website outlining his longstanding 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.