Jamie Stiehm: The California lady lights the dark


Jaime Stiehm



WASHINGTON -- Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, could not be bullied by the dark CIA. She was a shining profile in courage for bringing the post-9/11 torture report to the surface. The spy agency played rough to suppress the pages. But she prevailed in the subterranean struggle.


Or, the people prevailed after a long drought in the Capitol.


"My words give me no pleasure," the lady in regal purple and pearls said on the floor. She continued, "This question isn't about our enemies; it is about us. It is about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be. It is about how we represent ourselves to the world."



Nearly 6 feet tall, the senator spoke somberly about what we did -- for what again? Some say this moment of truth about torture should have come sooner. Others are grateful that it happened at all.


Trust me, it was a close call. As chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Feinstein was seen as too close to the intelligence community. But years after the 2001 terrorist attacks led the spy agency to set up a special "program" for terrorism suspects, Feinstein turned on the "Agency" for hacking her own Senate staff's computers. These were the hardworking people preparing the pages of the torture report.


Spies spying on their own guardians, fancy that. "DiFi" underwent a transformation of her own. Lawmakers have to assert their constitutional authority over spooks or else they are bound to run amok. Especially this crowd.


"Detainees," of course, never stood trial as terrorism suspects. Scores were held in nightmarish circumstances. Waterboarding, a technique used in coercive interrogations, violates human rights. Isolation for days in the dark, that's torture, too. It all happened on the night watch of the George W. Bush presidency. President Obama halted the CIA's secret program as soon as he took office in 2009.


The agency forgot background briefings on the lady from San Francisco. As a leader, she's clear and calm in the eye of a storm. When the mayor of San Francisco was fatally shot in City Hall, Feinstein was at the scene of the tragedy. As president of the board of supervisors, she became mayor. While the city grieved, she also faced an AIDS public health crisis.


These were the worst of times for her city. Yet the new mayor became a rising star. Feinstein was later elected to the Senate in the "year of the woman," 1992.


On the other side of the floor rose a Republican who to came to the same place, from the direction of his own experience. Senator John McCain of Arizona endured torture as a Navy pilot prisoner of war in the Vietnam War. When I was a rookie reporter, he once demonstrated his Morse code knocks (to fellow captives) on a lunch table in the Senate dining room. He seemed remarkably cheerful about his stay in the "Hanoi Hilton."


The best face of McCain came forward to support Feinstein, which meant the world in a sea of Republican opposition. He spoke hauntingly in the chamber, in minor chords: "We need only remember in the worst of time through the chaos and terror of war, when facing cruelty, suffering and loss, that we are always Americans." Human dignity demands better.


Armed with his testament, it was her day to bend the arc of history.


Their colleagues listened closely to the elders in the room. Feinstein is 81, and McCain is 78. With the changing of the political majority next month, she'll surrender her gavel. Since she will no longer lead the committee, the report made it to the rest of us in the nick of time. It's hard to read of secret cruel practices done in the name of our democracy, for years. The Washington Post cultural critic, Philip Kennicott, suggested we take this personally.


At dusk, I found myself looking out a window of the Capitol at a gorgeous tree with red autumn leaves clinging to its branches. The AP congressional photographer, Scotty Applewhite pointed out something in the sky: a rainbow at the end of the day.




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