Behind Torture Report, Feinstein's Frustration

President Barack Obama is greeted by Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) upon his arrival in San Francsico, November 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

At 81, Dianne Feinstein is the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, three years older than John McCain. And now, when most octogenarians have long since retired, the Californian has come to one of the most dramatic moments in her career: the presentation of the Senate Intelligence Committee's multi-year report on so called "enhanced interrogation techniques," or what the Feinstein herself said "amounted to torture."

The full 6,700-page report is mostly classified but Feinstein, the committee's chair, laid bare the 525-page executive summary, which makes the case against a CIA that used black sites and waterboarding, sleep deprivation, "anal hydration" and other gruesome techniques to violate human rights, all the while misleading the White House and Congress, and failing to gain much if any actionable intelligence.

But the report also offered a window into Feinstein's career—one whose place in intelligence matters has often baffled observers. When Edward Snowden's disclosures came to light in 2013, Feinstein was one of the most vociferous defenders of the National Security Agency's surveillance policies, including collecting the metadata of phone calls made by Americans in the United States—a policy that critics charged violated laws against the secretive agency engaging in domestic spying. Feinstein has also defended the U.S.'s use of drones to fight terrorism. Far from a critic of pushing the envelope when it comes to intelligence-gathering, Feinstein has been widely considered a staunch defender of doing just that.

The failure, though, of the CIA to be frank with the Senate Intelligence Committee beginning in 2003, irked all Democrats on the committee and most Republicans as well. When the CIA in 2002 destroyed videotapes of one of its interrogations and the then-director of the agency said that he would have provided them to the committee had there been a request, senators were outraged—since they didn't know of the interrogations in the first place and so couldn't have asked for the recordings. The CIA offered an examination of cables; the investigation was born and accelerated when the committee found the cables to be misleading at best.

Feinstein took over the committee in 2009, sped up the study and held firm right up until its release date, resisting efforts to delay the report's release despite concerns from the CIA and even Secretary of State John Kerry. Throughout the summer, Feinstein tangled with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough over redactions and timing.

To give one a sense of how defensive the CIA and the White House were, shortly after Feinstein finished her Senate floor speech about the report on Tuesday, the former Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Jay Rockefeller, said that at one point the White House argued that redactions weren't enough and that the redactions themselves should be removed, "so that it would be impossible for the reader to tell that something was hidden."

"It's no secret to anyone that the CIA does not want this report coming out," Feinstein told the Senate Tuesday.

To understand Feinstein, it's worth noting her interest in criminal justice issues. She began her political career as a young graduate of Stanford University, who wrote to then Gov. Pat Brown—father of current Gov. Jerry Brown—asking to work on prison and parole issues. Feinstein wound up doing just that for Brown, serving on California's Board of Parole beginning when she was just 27. Throughout her career in the Senate, she has been active in law enforcement issues, including the Crime Victim's Bill of Rights, designed to help those who have suffered at the hands of criminals. Her hawkish, pro-intelligence side has long stood in balance with her concern for crime and victims; it would seem that on Tuesday the crime side of her long, long career won out.

Releasing the report wasn't Feinstein's first moment in the national spotlight. In 1978, she announced the death of her fellow San Francisco Supervisor, Harvey Milk, after the gay rights pioneer was assassinated along with the city's mayor, George Moscone. Feinstein was on Walter Mondale's short list to be the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984. Elected to the Senate in 1992, she staved off a challenge from Michael Huffington—former husband of Huffington Post Editor in Chief Arianna Huffington—in 1994. But her rise through the Senate has cemented her image as a moderate who voted for the Iraq War and the first Bush tax cuts. Sometimes, that made liberals wary. But on Tuesday she rallied Democrats, as well as Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have praised the investigation. How the rest of world will react—terrorists abroad, U.S. allies, the "Arab street," the American public—is less clear.