Editor's note: In the Security Clearance "Case File" series, CNN national security producers profile key members of the intelligence community. As part of the series, Security Clearance is focusing on the roles women play in the U.S. intelligence community
It's true: one of the most powerful players in the world of U.S. espionage and intelligence wears ruby red nail polish.
In her role as chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California is the gatekeeper for the country’s most sensitive intelligence agencies. She is regularly briefed on evolving national security threats and keeps her ruby red-topped finger on the pulse of the most secret of missions. She’s blunt, direct, stubborn, and not afraid to admit it.
Since taking the gavel of the intelligence committee, Feinstein has added her own touches, among them changing the way some classified briefings are held.
“Typically, the sessions were pretty formal, much like the style of public hearings,” said a committee staffer who asked not to be named. Before Feinstein, members of the committee would sit in a briefing room, the witnesses at a separate table before them, and each member would wait his or her turn to pose questions to the witness. Now, once a month, “they all sit together at a round table, usually a few dozen doughnuts are brought in, and they have a discussion,” says the staffer. “There are no opening statements or written statement for the record, no rounds of questioning. Members just ask questions as they see fit.”
The sessions may be informal, but Feinstein remains on a mission of her own when it comes to her responsibility as chairwoman, a responsibility that she says is a key reason why she remains in the Senate.
“It is congressional oversight of intelligence. It is very important,” said Feinstein, who agreed to a rare interview to discuss the role she plays in the country’s intelligence structure. “We have the ability to stop something if we want to stop it. And we have the ability to watch things very carefully, as closely as we want to watch or can watch.”
Occasionally, Feinstein has been known for saying something to a reporter that she really wished she hadn’t, as was the case recently when she made comments about a highly controversial proposed prisoner exchange involving detainees currently held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Missteps like that can keep her chief of staff on his toes. She admitted that with all of the reading she does and briefings she sits in on, it’s sometimes tough to keep the classified bits separate from the unclassified. It’s a refreshingly honest answer in a town where posturing can sometimes come before truth.
Right now, Feinstein says she worries most about Iran, and about whether Israel will act too quickly and launch an attack against sensitive nuclear facilities in Iran. She is concerned about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan because she sees it as a strategic relationship that affects the entire region.
“We could have a positive relationship with Pakistan,” said Feinstein. “It is the best course for us and the best course for them. It’s a nation that I think is very troubled, but nonetheless it’s an important nation. And the degree to which the United States can play a role in helping facilitate answers to problems like between India and Pakistan, I think that is important that we are helpful there. And of course you really can’t have success in Afghanistan without cooperation from Pakistan.”
As one of the “gang of eight” - the ranking party leaders from both the Senate and House committees on intelligence - Feinstein was briefed on the raid to capture or kill Osama bin laden a year ago this week, but like many in the intelligence world, it's what she doesn't know that worries her more. That fear stems from personal experience.
The senior senator from California is haunted by her vote to go to war in Iraq. But she says that regret drives her to better understand today’s intelligence and to more aggressively question intelligence leaders both in open hearings and classified settings.
There are limits to her power, though. While congressional intelligence committee leaders are privy to almost all intelligence information, one thing they don’t see is the president’s daily brief. Feinstein said that may have played a role in her decision to go to war, suggesting that had she known what the President George W. Bush knew at the time, she may have voted differently. Instead, Feinstein said she based her decision largely on the National Intelligence Estimate - the intelligence community's assessment of current threats that is regularly reported to Congress.
There have also been changes in the way intelligence comes together since Feinstein took over the chairmanship.
“We’ve been able to pass three intelligence bills,” Feinstein said. “And within the intelligence bills are changes in the authorities to the intelligence agencies so they have some importance. By and large, I think the civilian oversight of these agencies is really key and critical because they know that what they do is sifted through us. They know that if we find something, if we feel that something is not legal, is not in the best interests of this country, we will do something about it.”
Sometimes, when intelligence is missed, luck can step in. That was the case in December 2009, when an attempted terror attack by an airplane passenger hiding explosives in his underwear was thwarted because of the quick thinking of a flight attendant and nearby passengers.
“We worry about what that bomb signified. That bomb was a new bomb that was undetectable in a magnetometer and that is a real alarming situation," says Feinstein. “They subsequently detected two of those bombs in the Dubai airport," says Feinstein, who adds that investigators initially had trouble finding the explosive material. Acting on intelligence, they opened a box of printer cartridges, and found PETN in two of them. It would have been enough to down the airplane they were being transported on.
Such are the challenges that Feinstein worries about as she remains convinced that bad actors will continue to seek new ways to bring terror to America.
“I don't doubt that people will come after us if they can. The point is not to let them and be as vigilant, and keep up that vigilance which is very hard for America. We’re kind of a laid-back, anything goes country and that is no longer true in national security. The protection of the homeland is the number one goal I think, for all of us. So a lot of time is spent, a lot of questions are asked and it isn't an easy arena.”
Feinstein is a woman who is clearly passionate about what she does. She’s joining a small group of her colleagues from the Senate and House intelligence committees traveling to Afghanistan and Pakistan. She won't divulge travel details for security reasons, but says she isn’t the slightest bit nervous because being nervous simply “is not going to do any good.”
Feinstein was elected to the Senate in 1992 and assumed her role on the intelligence committee just months before the attacks of September 11, 2001.
She said she’s seen a huge change in the numbers of women who now represent the intelligence community in congressional hearings.
“When I first went on the committee, you never saw a woman testifying before you,” Feinstein said. “It’s a big change, and I had dinner recently with a group of women, about 10 or 11, and it was wonderful. It was just wonderful, because they are real professionals and they care very much about the country, the national security of our country, and are really prepared to sacrifice a great deal of their life to do it.”
Other women in the intelligence community share equal admiration for the role Feinstein plays and how she has pioneered new paths for women.
“People don’t realize how many things she was the first woman to do,” said Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence Stephanie O'Sullivan. “To be elected mayor of San Francisco, to serve as senator from California, to preside over a presidential inauguration and as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Having her wield the power of the gavel is an inspiration to women throughout the intelligence community. She’s a leader in every sense of the word.”