By Seema Mehta
February 19, 2014, 10:19 p.m.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered a full-throated defense of the government’s collection of data on billions of American phone calls, saying Wednesday that the National Security Agency’s practices have safeguarded the nation without trampling on civil liberties.

“What keeps me up at night, candidly, is another attack against the United States. And I see enough of the threat stream to know that is possible,” Feinstein said at a Pacific Council on International Policy dinner in Century City.

She pointed to a warning Wednesday about potential bombs hidden in the shoes of passengers on flights bound for the United States.

“But the way we prevent another attack – and this is tricky – is intelligence,” she said. “You have to know what’s going to happen, because it’s too late otherwise.”

Feinstein’s firm support for the NSA’s tracking program has divided some of her most ardent backers, and in recent months her popularity in California has plunged to a historic low.

During the hourlong question-and-answer session, several people questioned Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, about the boundaries of intelligence gathering and about NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who used his position to collect classified information about NSA activities that he has since made public.

Snowden, Feinstein said, had other options to serve as a whistle-blower, such as turning to her or others in the government, instead of releasing the information and fleeing to Russia. And Americans already see far more intrusion into their lives from commercial sources, she said, noting that her daughter emailed a contractor about a bathroom faucet and then started receiving messages from other contractors.

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