Dianne Feinstein wanted the White House off her lawn.
In the hours after the Obama administration revealed that it had traded five Taliban suspects for Bowe Bergdahl, the influential Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman went public with her anger. The president should have notified her, Feinstein said in a public rebuke that was so odd because it was so rare.
And as if to underline the virtue of her position, she said White House national security aide Tony Blinken called to apologize for not alerting her to the swap.
Suddenly, there was uncommon daylight between President Obama and the Democrat who serves as his chief congressional defender on all security and intelligence issues.
“She didn’t need to go as far as she did,” complained one senior Democratic aide.
Other aides echoed the sentiment. They complained that Feinstein’s criticism—characterized as sharp by senior Democratic staff—made little sense in an environment where Republicans seize on any controversial White House maneuver or misstep as a potential campaign-trail boon.
And indeed, they latched onto it.
“What’s perplexing, not only was it the president, but the president of the same party, which left a lot of unanswered questions and created a firestorm,” said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, himself a former head of the Intelligence Committee.
Feinstein has since tried to rein in her pique and rewrite the episode. “I was just asked a question,” she said when asked about reports that she was at odds with the White House over Bergdahl. “I gave a simple answer. I’m not going to make another comment. Thank you.”
And when pressed, she went so far as to defend the White House’s lack of communication.
“Wherever I go, that’s the question. ‘Has the White House called you? Well, why hasn’t the White House called you?’ I mean, please,” Feinstein said. “The White House has a lot of things to do. I just spoke with the White House chief of staff, the senior [National Security Council] people. This happens all the time. So please don’t make that an issue. There are a lot of things that are issues. This is not one of them.”
But those who know Feinstein say she knew what she was doing when she publicly challenged the White House for failing to notify Congress before letting terrorism suspects leave Guantanamo. It was a product of the frustration that all of them feel as administrations repeatedly and increasingly cut Congress out of the loop on intelligence matters.
The only difference is that this time, the slight was great enough to irk even this White House’s great defender.
“I’m just telling you that we’ve been battling,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who chaired the committee from 2007 to 2009. “That’s all I’ve done. I was on the committee before 9/11, and all we’ve done is fight this issue, of the administration not really wanting to brief the Senate.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, defended Feinstein’s rebuke. “Dianne Feinstein is a very thoughtful senator. She thinks through every issue very thoroughly and she has the benefit just like I do of an extensive background on this proposal as well as the individuals involved,” he said. “Like me she’s never questioned the Bergdahl side of it other than they told us they were gonna give us 30 days’ notice and they didn’t. And that’s not right. That’s sticking it in the eye of Congress and they shouldn’t have done that.”
The fallout from the Bergdahl swap has certainly strained the congressional-White House relationship, members say, but to what extent is uncertain. On a committee whose work is classified and hearings are behind closed doors, aides and panel members are reluctant to talk about tension with the administration. “In recent history … this is unprecedented,” said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, a former GOP chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
But had Feinstein or any other senator wanted to pound the administration further, they could have when the Senate considered the intelligence reauthorization, which passed unanimously just this month.
For its part, the Obama administration denies its relationship with Feinstein took a hit over the Bergdahl swap. And, like Feinstein, White House officials are suggesting the split is not an issue.
“The fact that this partnership persists, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye, is a testament to the strength of this vital relationship and our shared commitment to keeping the nation safe,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Certainly, Feinstein’s relationship with the White House has had ups and downs. She was a staunch defender of the administration’s positions after the leak of the National Security Agency’s data-collection program last year. She also agrees with the president that the detention center in Guantanamo Bay should be closed. But in March, Feinstein took to the Senate floor to accuse the CIA of searching Intelligence Committee staff computers to allegedly undermine a congressional investigation.
And in 2009, when Obama tapped Leon Panetta, a former member of Congress and Clinton White House chief of staff, Feinstein objected, arguing the president should have chosen someone from within the intel community. Her objections were not enough to derail Panetta, but they did result in an apology from Vice President Joe Biden, which led to Feinstein saying she would support the president’s choice.
Indeed, it seems Senate Democrats, Feinstein included, are willing to forgive the White House—if only after creating a stir that precedes an apology.
“The White House, to their credit, has said, ‘We made a mistake,’ ” said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. “So I always jump up and go from here.”