U.S. Sen. Richard Burr says he plans a new approach to keeping close tabs on the nation’s spy agencies when he becomes chairman of the Senate committee that’s charged with making sure the intelligence community operates within the law.
“We’re going to focus on real-time oversight, so nobody can ever say again that they forgot or they weren’t briefed or they didn’t know,” Burr said. “Because we’re going to be intense with every (intelligence) agency. What they did over the past six to eight weeks. What they plan to do over the next six to eight. We’re getting inside their metrics that they use.”
Burr’s comment was a veiled criticism of Democratic lawmakers, who said they didn’t know the details of the CIA’s abuse of detainees before they commissioned the report, which was five years in the making, even though the agency said it briefed them. The committee, still under the leadership of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, released a summary of the CIA torture report on Tuesday.
Burr takes the gavel from Feinstein in January. He had been second in line behind the committee’s ranking Republican member, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who is retiring from the Senate.
The 59-year-old Burr, who is from Winston-Salem, has been a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence since 2007. Before he was elected to the Senate in 2004, he served for five terms in the House of Representatives and was a member of the chamber’s Intelligence panel. Now he will join the “gang of eight,” the elite group that gets special briefings on the most highly classified matters. It is made up of the chairman and minority party vice chairman of the House and Senate intelligence panels, plus the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.
“It’s easy to get lured into thinking you’re part of the intelligence community instead of a watchdog,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office. “The whole country really relies on these Intelligence Committee members, especially the chairmen, as a watchdog. If they don’t do the job, agencies could be out of control.”
Joseph Wippl, a former CIA officer in the National Clandestine Service and the agency’s former director of congressional affairs, said he thought Burr’s approach to oversight was a good idea.
“The advantage of real-time oversight is that the Congress knows what the intelligence community is doing and assisting it any way that it can to achieve the results, and also to say, ‘Excuse me, guys. That’s not going to work,’ ” said Wippl, director of graduate studies at the Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.
The committee, he added, “can also be a little bit of a conscience.”
Burr steps in as leader at a time when its members have been publicly divided over the CIA torture report, a legally and morally troubling account prepared by Democratic members and staff that revealed a gruesome history of agency efforts to squeeze terrorist suspects for information. Like most Republicans on the committee, Burr said it was full of errors and was political in nature.
The two-term senator voted in April to release the summary of the torture report to the Obama administration for redaction and release, even though he said at the time that it was flawed and biased. He said he wanted to “give the American people the opportunity to make their own judgments.”
Burr also takes over at a time when tension is high between the CIA and its congressional overseers as a result of the CIA’s intrusion into computers that the Senate Intelligence Committee used to compile the torture report.
He said he doesn’t plan to hold hearings on it. Burr also doesn’t expect that partisan differences over the report will undo the committee’s bipartisan nature. Since it meets almost entirely in secret, its members don’t necessarily feel compelled to toe a party line.
“I think the committee will be fine,” Burr said in a short interview at the Capitol on Tuesday. “This is a big split, but most of the differences have been shared for the last several years, not just today. The reality is we’ve got a mission in the committee. I think Dianne understands that, the members understand that. But we’re going to reiterate exactly what our oversight role is.”
Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, a committee member, also said he thought bipartisanship would survive.
“The intelligence community, but for this particular issue, is one of the most bipartisan, nonpartisan things I do here,” he said.
“We’re truly bipartisan,” Feinstein said in an interview.
No promises on transparency
Burr faces re-election for a third six-year term in 2016. His work on the committee, even though mostly in secret, could give his views a bigger platform. He said he welcomes the watchdog role that is the committee’s mandate – vigilant legislative oversight to make sure that the intelligence agencies operate in accord with the Constitution and the law.
The chairman-in-waiting said he already had started to talk with intelligence officials to explain how the committee would operate next year.
“The more they share with us, the better we can be,” Burr said. “And hopefully this will be a new relationship with the intelligence community.”
Burr has not promised greater transparency about that new relationship. In fact, he recently was quoted as saying, “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the Intelligence Committee should ever be discussed publicly.”
But he said this week that he wasn’t closing the door.
“I’ll have some open hearings,” Burr said. “We’re mandated to have one annual open hearing on global threats. But what I’ve said is any agency that feels like there’s an issue that one, they can talk about publicly, and two, they believe there’s an educational benefit to the American people, I’m more than happy to have an open hearing.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, which works to reduce the scope of secrecy over national security, said congressional oversight of intelligence has been too weak.
Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance activities under the Patriot Act, which gave law enforcement broad tools to track down terrorists, raised a public outcry about the government going too far with its bulk collection of communications of Americans.
But the intelligence committees “basically signed off on the programs that Snowden exposed,” Aftergood said.
“The good news is I don’t think (the Senate committee) could make it a lot more closed because it’s already about as closed as it could be,” Aftergood said. “But the bad news is that is not the right direction. The intelligence system needs public confidence, and the only way you can hope to win such confidence is through open discussion with the public.”