Buzzkiller

01.17.14

Dianne Feinstein and the Pink Drone, or Was It?

The Democrat had Washington rapt with her tale of being spied on at home—by what might have been a kids’ toy. Code Pink’s chief says ‘mission accomplished.’

Sen. Dianne Feinstein got up close and personal at a drone hearing Wednesday with the stunning admission that she herself discovered one peeking into her window at home in San Francisco.

With the drone just inches from her face, the standoff didn’t last long. “Obviously the pilot of the drone had some surprise, because the drone wheeled around and crashed,” she told the Senate committee, smiling. “So I felt a little good about that.”

Meant to spark conversation about the privacy concerns linked to commercial drone use, the 80-year-old’s tale was too bizarre to be effective. In no time, it had eclipsed the larger national agenda it was meant to inform. “Dianne Feinstein Once Startled a Drone and Made It Crash,” read New York mag’s headline. “Feinstein Says She Once Found a Drone Peeking in Her Window,” said Politico. But it was when The Atlantic Wire asked whether the “drone” Feinstein spotted was actually just one of peace activist group Code Pink’s tiny helicopters that the story took on new meaning.

Nancy Mancias, Code Pink’s campaign organizer based in San Francisco, was giddy with excitement when she called me. “I have to admit when I saw the remark, I thought ‘WHAT IS SHE TALKING ABOUT?’” Mancias said quickly. “Then I saw tweets [about Code Pink]. I knew we were there at her house in June. That could have been us. If it was, I say mission accomplished, yes.”

Perhaps the drone wasn’t afraid of Feinstein after all. (Perhaps, it wasn’t a drone in the first place.)

Inflamed by Feinstein’s claim that National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden had committed an "act of treason," Code Pink—a female-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement—plotted a June 15 demonstration at her five-story mansion. Armed with tiny pink remote-control helicopters, decoy cameras, and magnifying glasses from Toys ‘R’ Us, the group descended on Lyon and Valejo streets in San Francisco. But after an attempt to make contact proved fruitless, they concluded that the senator (who usually would at least wave from a window) wasn’t home. “We rang her doorbell—in the past she has come down. If we had known she was home we would have loved for her to come out and have a discussion with us about domestic surveillance.”

In lieu of Feinstein (or perhaps, with her secretly watching from inside), the Code Pink party roared on. “We held an Austin Powers-themed protest!” Mancias says of the day. But if it’s one of Code Pink’s dinky little helicopters that Feinstein is calling a drone, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee may need to review the definition. The "Pink Patrol: Lady Sky Invaders" is meant for young kids, and can easily be purchased online for just $17.85.

“They’re just toys, they couldn’t do that much,” Mancias said of the helicopters. “When we flew them, some only got seven feet off the ground and crashed.” Perhaps the drone wasn’t afraid of Feinstein after all. (Perhaps, it wasn’t a drone in the first place.)

While Code Pink looks to be responsible, Mancias says she is still skeptical about Feinstein’s “drone” story. “I don’t think it actually happened at all. But whatever… it’s the senator. So if it ‘happened,’ I guess ‘it happened.’” Even more disturbing to Mancias—and to many in her circle—is Feinstein's acceptance of the CIA's use of drones. "It's interesting that [Sen. Feinstein] is against domestic spying. She speaks out against it here, yet she's willing to let the same thing go on abroad." Senator Feinstein did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.

Tiny pink helicopters aside, Code Pink feels at least somewhat vindicated—and they don’t care who knows it. “We wanted to simulate domestic spying on her house, to give [Sen. Feinstein] the feeling of what an average citizen is experiencing all the time—and fearing."