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The Starting Point for Commentary and Coverage of California Politics

Dianne Feinstein Doesn't Want You to Know

California's US senator wants to plug leaks. But shouldn't the public know about cyber-attacks?

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If the US government attacks another country with a method that could leave Americans exposed to similar attacks, should you know about it?

Dianne Feinstein says no.

California's US senator is leading the charge to do something about leaks of national security information. She told CNN recently that the country was experiencing "an Anschluss, an avalanche of leaks. And it's very, very disturbing. You know, it's dismayed our allies. It puts American lives in jeopardy. It puts our nation's security in jeopardy."

That's one perspective.

Here's another. Feinstein's main complaint, detailed in this Politico story, was about a New York Times article that explained how the U.S. government was conducting cyber-attacks against Iran and its nuclear program.

The attacks included creating a computer worm of sorts to penetrate computers. That worm escaped the Iranian nuclear facility, however. That made it a threat to other computers and people around the world.

The decision by the American government to use cyber-attacks also could put Americans at risk from corresponding reprisals. This country and its citizens depend on the Internet and networks in many ways. When Americans are put at risk in this way, they ought to know about it.

Feinstein, however, vented her ire at the reporter who wrote the New York Times article, suggesting he had misled her about the nature of his scoop and whether it revealed national security secrets.

Even if Feinstein is telling the truth about her exchange with the reporter, there's nothing wrong with the New York Times being less than forthcoming about what it has. Particularly in light of the fact that the US government is going after whistleblowers and leakers -- with more intensity than ever before -- for releasing important information about what that the government is doing in its name.

Whatever your views on how to balance the public's right to know vs. national security (in your blogger's experience, the government routinely classifies public information and keeps most secrets to protect its power, not the public), this is precisely the sort of thing that Feinstein should be forced to defend in a real political campaign.

Unfortunately, she doesn't appear to be facing much of a challenge for re-election.

The Republican who faces her in November, Elizabeth Emken, doesn't have an intelligence background, and it's not clear what her views are in this matter. But Emken would be smart to raise it forcefully, for policy and political reasons.

Feinstein's attitude about the public's right to know deserves to be questioned. And since Emken needs media attention, and since the press cares about this subject intensely, raising the issue would get her noticed.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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