Civil libertarians lamented the defeat of Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado last fall. He was one of the most outspoken members of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

But his replacement on the committee – Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawai`i – is just as outspoken in raising concerns about NSA spying and CIA torture. And with one of the most progressive records of any senator, Hirono holds the promise of providing an important voice on intelligence and array of other issues as she enters her third year in the Senate. Showing a knack for finding strategic GOP partners, Hirono may even be able to advance major components of her agenda while now in the minority.

Hirono joined with Udall in 2013 in drafting and signing a bipartisan letter to Director of National James Clapper on National Security Agency spying:

We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law.

That same year, she directed tough questions to James Comey at his confirmation hearing to become FBI Director, on a range of subjects, including CIA torture, domestic terrorist threats and the limits on the government’s surveillance powers. She commended Comey for pledging to maintain the FBI’s policy against use of torture – while noting the CIA’s failure to adhere to such a policy.

I think that is very important in the context of other agencies using some of these so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have an agency, the FBI, which will draw the line at use of those kinds of techniques.

She went on to explore Comey’s view’s on a range of drone-related issues.

FBI director nominee: drones shouldn’t target citizens in US, except possibly ‘imminent threats’

Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), about how the FBI under Comey would deal with the influx of commercial and civilian-controlled drones taking place. “With the expansion of civilian use of drones, do you have any security concerns about criminals or terrorists using drones to conduct surveillance of potential targets?” Hirono asked. “I do, even as a private citizen reading about the increasing availability of drones,” Comey answered.

Hirono also returned to the issue that had been expected to dominate the hearing, that of the FBI and NSA’s mass surveillance of US phone records. “Regardless of the legality or constitutionality of a given surveillance program, do you believe that government surveillance of US citizens go too far?” Senator Hirono asked. “I’m sure there are circumstances in which it could, senator,” Comey said. “Where do we draw the line at going too far?” Hirono followed up. “Hard for me to answer from this vantage point,” Comey said.

She had earlier grilled FBI Director Robert Mueller on domestic surveillance by government drones and made headlines by getting him to admit its existence.

FBI admits to using surveillance drones over US soil

“It is still in nascent stages but it is worthy of debate and legislation down the road,” said Mueller, in response to questions from Hawaii senator Mazie Hirono.

Hirono said: “I think this is a burgeoning concern for many of us.”

Her work on drones is illustrative of the approach she’ll likely bring to the Intelligence Committee – ensuring agencies are adequately defending against terrorist threats, while also respecting the Constitution. This is also seen in her work on the Armed Services Committee, where’s she representing her constituents by working with the state’s congressional delegation to ensure jobs are protected in Hawai`i while also seeking military-justice reform, working against domestic violence within the armed forces and, as she has throughout her political career, favoring peace and diplomacy over war.

Hirono’s most effective work in the 113th Congress was helping to lead the Senate’s efforts to pass a humane version of comprehensive immigration reform. Hirono is the only immigrant in the Senate, and she’s become a national figure in the immigrant rights based on her insistence on women’s rights, LGBT equality and family integrity in the immigration debate. Honolulu’s Civil Beat has described Hirono as a “rock star” with a “burgeoning” national profile because of her work on immigration issues.

Hrono announced last week she’s continuing her career-long focus on expanding opportunities for high-quality early-childhood education with the introduction of the PRE-K Act of 2015.

A Jan. 29 press release from Hirono’s office, reprinted below, tells the story.

Meanwhile, the Intelligence Committee is slowly ramping up its activities. No legislation has yet been referred to the committee, and no open hearings have been scheduled. There are closed-door briefings set for Tuesday and Wednesday. Hirono – who currently has Progressive Punch’s second-best Senate voting record – will certainly at some point have her voice heard on the committee, despite being its newest member. She’s never been afraid to challenge those in power.


PRE-K Act Ensures Access To High Quality Early Learning Programs

Washington, DC – Today, as she continues to lay out the markers for the 114th Congress, Senator Mazie K. Hirono introduced the Providing Resources Early for Kids (PRE-K) Act, legislation to expand access to high-quality early learning programs for children from birth to age five. The PRE-K Act helps more kids arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed by establishing a federal-state partnerships that incentivizes  states to both improve the quality of state preschool programs and expand to serve more children in need.

“The investments we make in our youngest keiki are paid back in full by enhancing our nation’s competitiveness in our global economy,” said Senator Hirono. “Hawaii educators have told me that many kids start kindergarten already behind. Our children deserve the best chance to succeed and our educators need all the tools we can give them to put students on track to being lifelong learners. That’s why, beginning when I was Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor 20 years ago, I have been committed to quality early learning to help kids start kindergarten ready to succeed. Where you live should not determine what chance you get in life, and this bill will ensure states like Hawaii can create effective, quality state preschool programs. This bill focuses on quality because it is what makes the biggest difference in educational outcomes. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and Senate and moving this bill forward.”

A recent White House report summarizes what decades of research has shown: high quality early learning yields over $8 for every $1 invested, by helping kids learn to read on time, stay in school, avoid crime, get good jobs, pay taxes, and avoid other social services later in life. The PRE-K Act creates a new federal-state partnership to improve state preschool programs and expand to serve more children in need. States that already have a high-quality preschool program could get grants to improve quality and expand to serve more children. Other states with small or newer programs could apply for startup funds if they submit a plan to establish a high-quality preschool program within two years. PRE-K Act funds could help states hire and train early educators; expand preschool days and hours; or provide comprehensive services such as health screenings and meals.

Senator Hirono is a nationally recognized leader on early childhoon education has long advocated for quality early learning. As Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor, she introduced the Pre-Plus program that provided preschool facilities on public school campuses. She first introduced the Providing Resources Early for Kids (PRE-K) Act as a U.S. House Member, and it passed the House Education and Workforce Committee on a bipartisan vote in 2008. She co-introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Actas part of President Obama’s early learning plan in 2013. The 2014 federal spending bill included a “down payment” to fund federal Preschool Development Grants, with a similar structure as Hirono’s PRE-K Act. In December 2014, Hawaii was among 18 states to win a one-time, four-year preschool grant. Enacting the PRE-K Act would authorize longer-term funding for all states to have the opportunity to begin, strengthen, and expand their preschool systems.

The PRE-K Act was introduced with the following original cosponsors: Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

“The early years are some of the most crucial in the educational development of our children. Keeping a child on the right track and instilling a love for learning early in life can make all the difference later. We must make sure no one starts behind the curve when they enter the classroom and that’s why expanding access to these early childhood education programs should be a no-brainer,” Senator Durbin said.

“As a mother of two, I understand how important it is to make sure our children have access to a quality education,” said Senator Gillibrand. “By improving and expanding access to pre-k, we are not only investing in our children but we are also investing in our economic future. Few investments yield a better return than pre-k which gives our children the strong foundation they need to learn, succeed in the long term, and grow our economy. This initiative will help more children get access to the resources they need to start out strong, so that they can go as far as their own hard work will take them.”

“Expanding access to early childhood education helps close the achievement gap and prepare students for a lifetime of learning,”said Senator Kaine, who expanded the Virginia Preschool Initiative as Governor. “To keep our economy strong, we need a long-term plan that produces the best workforce in the world. A key step in growing our talented workforce is ensuring that all children are prepared to enter school ready to learn. Last year, I successfully urged the U.S. Department of Education to give Virginia a $17.5 million Preschool Development Grant to expand high-quality preschool programs for children from low and moderate income families. The PRE-K Act would build upon this grant, providing Virginia and the nation with opportunities to strengthen and expand our preschools.”

“Throughout our history, Wisconsin has made real investments in early childhood education because we understand that a strong start helps build a strong middle class. Our nation must make it a priority to invest in early education for all, so that the doors of opportunity are open to every child and help provide them the skills they need to realize their dreams,” said Senator Baldwin. “I’m proud to join this effort to renew our commitment to the proven foundation we know that early childhood education provides. This is a critical investment for our middle class and for our future.”

“Every child deserves the best education possible.  But in Hawai‘i and across the country, too many children are unprepared for school simply because states don’t have the resources to invest in early education programs,” said Senator Schatz. “Our legislation would help states like Hawai‘i establish new, high-quality early education programs that give children a better shot at success in school and in life.”

“We cannot wait until our children are adolescents or adults to invest in their education,” Senator Brown said. “Study after study shows the importance of high-quality preschool programs in keeping kids in school, preparing them for college or careers, and setting them on a productive path in life. That’s why this bill is so important – investing in high quality early education will ensure the next generation has a head start on the path to success.”

Similar legislation is also being introduced in the House by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Mike Honda (D-CA).

“High-quality early education is essential to a student’s long-term academic success,” said Rep. Mark Pocan. “The PRE-K Act will encourage states to make critical investments in our nation’s future and provide better preschool opportunities for children. Improving educational outcomes depends on reaching children early to ensure kids are prepared to succeed.”

“The Pre-K Act makes critical investments in our nation’s early-education programs,” Rep. Mike Honda said.  “The matching grants for Pre-K programs and certification requirements for Pre-K teachers are sensible steps to improve our early education. These steps are a key component of the Equity and Excellence Commission’s recommendations for tackling the inequity problem in our schools, and I am excited to sponsor legislation that translates those recommendations into action. We need to keep working to ensure that each and every child gets an excellent education, starting as early as possible.”

The PRE-K Act of 2015 has been endorsed by the following national and Hawaii organizations:

  • American Association of University Women (AAUW)
  • American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
  • Council for Exceptional Children (CEC)
  • Council of Administrators of Special Education – CEC
  • Early Care and Education Consortium
  • First Focus Campaign for Children
  • Good Beginnings Alliance
  • Hawaii Business Roundtable
  • HighScope Educational Research Foundation
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
  • National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE)
  • National Education Association (NEA)
  • National Women’s Law Center (NWLC)
  • Parents As Teachers
  • School Social Work Association of America (SSWA)