Two of the most powerful members of Congress — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi — are from San Francisco. They've each spent much of their long tenures in Congress serving on the Intelligence Committees in their respective houses, overseeing the increasingly overreaching surveillance state. And they're now in positions to do something significant to rein in the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, if they can move from statements of outrage to actions of courage.
Feinstein is at the center of the latest national security controversy, criticizing the CIA for spying on her Senate Intelligence Committee staffers as they researched legislation to expose and rein in the CIA's interrogation and torture policies. Apparently, Feinstein doesn't like being subjected to the same kind of blanket NSA surveillance that she's been defending, so perhaps this is a welcome lesson for her.
Pelosi was also in a key oversight position when this illegal wiretapping by the federal government began under then-President George W. Bush, something we and others called her out for at the time (see "Pelosi knew about warrantless spying," 1/25/06).
Pelosi's defense then was "I objected in writing" when she was briefed on the federal government's overreaching surveillance operation, something that falls far short of what we would expect from someone who regularly get vilified by conservatives as epitomizing San Francisco's liberal values.
Now is the time for San Francisco's most powerful congressional representatives to represent our values, and those of the rest of civilized world that has condemned US surveillance programs that violate international law and cultivate backdoors and other weaknesses in this country's critical cybersecurity infrastructure.
Feinstein should introduce bipartisan legislation, possibly co-sponsored with Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican who also has expressed concerns about the security state, to repeal the USA Patriot Act, the post-9/11 bill that gave vague license to many of the current excesses.
Pelosi and Feinstein should also pressure President Barack Obama to accept all or most of the 46 important reforms recommended by his commission on government surveillance, even if starts a fight that costs party unity in the short term.
"In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty," the commission wrote in its report to Obama, which was released in mid-December.
Obama has already expressed concerns about the Democratic Party losing ground in this year's mid-term election because of apathy among Democratic voters, but a bold break from the imperial presidency of the Bush era could be exactly what the party needs to fire up the base.
Yet more important than such political considerations, it's simply the right thing to do, and something that Feinstein, Pelosi, and the Bay Area's other congressional representatives should be vigorously pushing.