Dianne Feinstein, a long-serving Democratic US senator from California and gun control advocate who spearheaded the first federal assault weapons ban and documented the CIA’s torture of foreign terrorism suspects, has died at the age of 90.
Feinstein’s office said she died on Thursday night at her Washington DC home.
Feinstein was a political trailblazer who, among other accomplishments, became the first woman to head the influential Senate Intelligence Committee.
During almost 31 years in the Senate she amassed a moderate to progressive record.
Feinstein joined the Senate in 1992 after winning a special election and was re-elected five times, including in 2018, along the way becoming the longest-serving woman senator ever.
“Dianne was a pioneering woman leader, who served as San Francisco’s first female mayor with unmatched courage, poise and grace,” US Representative Nancy Pelosi, a fellow California Democrat and speaker emerita of the House of Representatives, said in a statement, one of many tributes to Feinstein on Friday.
“Dianne’s extraordinary career will continue to inspire countless young women and girls to pursue public service for generations to come,” Pelosi said.
Feinstein’s political career was shaped by guns.
She became San Francisco’s mayor in 1978 after mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated.
Feinstein was president of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors when Moscone and Milk were gunned down by a former supervisor, Dan White.
After hearing the gunshots, she rushed to Milk’s office.
While searching for his pulse, her finger found a bullet hole.
Feinstein said the horror of that experience never left her, and she went on to author the federal ban on military-style weapons that lasted from 1994 until its 2004 expiration.
“This is a gun-happy nation, and everybody can have their gun,” Feinstein said after a May 2021 mass shooting in her home state as she lamented years of congressional failure to pass new gun control laws to guard against “the killing of innocents”.
Feinstein led a renewed effort for tougher gun laws, including a fresh ban on certain weapons after the 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut primary school.
The legislation encountered furious opposition from Republicans and gun rights advocates, and failed in the Senate.
Health issues slowed Feinstein late in her career, when she was the oldest senator at the time.
She announced in February 2023 that she would not seek re-election the following year, and was sidelined from Congress for three months ending in May after suffering from shingles and complications, including encephalitis and Ramsay Hunt Syndrome.
As Intelligence Committee chair, Feinstein overcame resistance from national security officials and Republican politicians in 2014 as her panel released a 2014 report detailing the CIA’s secret overseas detention and interrogation of foreign terrorism suspects following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
“History will judge us,” Feinstein said, “by our commitment to a just society governed by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say, ‘Never again.’”
The report detailed interrogation practices such as the simulated drowning method called waterboarding, sleep deprivation, painful stress positions, “rectal feeding” and “rectal hydration”.
Despite CIA claims that the practices had saved lives, the report concluded that such methods had played no role in disrupting any terrorism plots, capturing any militant leaders or finding Osama Bin Laden, who was killed by US forces in Pakistan in 2011.
Feinstein defended US surveillance programs exposed in 2013 by a National Security Agency contractor named Edward Snowden, a leak she called “an act of treason”.
“It’s called protecting America,” Feinstein said of the NSA electronic surveillance of telephone data and internet communications that critics called a vast government overreach.
During Republican George W Bush’s presidency, Feinstein backed the 2002 Iraq war resolution but later voiced regret. She supported Bush’s Patriot Act to help track terrorism suspects but criticised him for authorising spying on US residents without court approval.
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