The intel community has spent years being bashed by Senate Democrats. Things will be very different if Richard Burr is in charge.
Republicans stand to gain as many as eight seats in the Senate this election. But America’s spies stand to gain much, much more.
If the Nov. 4 elections deliver a GOP-controlled Senate, the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee is likely to go to a North Carolinian whose unwavering support for the CIA and NSA could radically transform the committee’s oversight agenda.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), an outspoken defender of enhanced interrogation techniques and broad government surveillance powers, is next in line for the chairmanship. Unlike the current Democratic head of the committee, Dianne Feinstein of California, Burr has been harshly critical of a yet-to-be-released report on the Bush administration’s post-9/11 torture practices — a view shared by many in the agency.
And although Burr’s views about NSA data collection largely mirror Feinstein’s, his distaste for publicity and devotion to secrecy could fundamentally alter the way the committee operates on a day-to-day basis. "I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly," Burr told reporters in March. "If I had my way, with the exception of nominees, there would never be a public intelligence hearing."
For an intel committee that has feuded publicly with CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper with a ferocity not seen since the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s, the change would be stark.
"A Burr-led committee is not going to look anything like a Feinstein-led committee," a GOP Senate aide told Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. "He’s much more of a person who will do things behind the scenes than throw things in the press like Feinstein has."
A spokesman for Burr, a former businessman who served five terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2004, said the senator would not respond to any interview requests about his committee assignments or worldview until after the midterm elections.
Republicans currently need to pick up six seats to win control of the Senate — a prospect the New York Times‘s Upshot blog puts at 68 percent.
If that happens, Burr will have to choose between two chairmanships: Intelligence, which he’s in line to take thanks to the retirement of Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.); and Veterans’ Affairs, where he’s already the ranking member. Sources say Burr will likely take intel, which has long been a goal of his, but a surprise pivot to Veterans’ Affairs is possible given his vulnerability at the ballot box in 2016. (Republicans have the advantage this election cycle but independent pollsters view North Carolina’s 2016 Senate race as gettable for Democrats.)
"It’s going to be a competitive seat and so you need every advantage you can get, and North Carolina has an enormous amount of veterans," said a GOP aide.
Although many of Burr’s views on torture and surveillance are not outside the mainstream of Republican thought, his ascendance would mark a dramatic shift given the current committee’s toxic relationship with the intelligence community, and in particular the CIA.
That relationship hit an all-time low in March amid dueling accusations over one of the darkest chapters in the spy agency’s history: the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation program. (Relations in the House, where that chamber’s intelligence oversight committee hasn’t launched an aggressive investigation of the interrogation program, have been more harmonious.) In early March, the CIA charged that Senate staff working inside an agency facility in Northern Virginia improperly removed classified documents pertaining to the CIA interrogation program that the committee was never supposed to see because they fell outside the scope of the initial congressional inquiry and were protected by executive privilege.
For their part, committee Democrats said that the documents vindicated their own investigation, which concludes that the CIA’s torture of detainees failed to produce any useful information about potential terror attacks. They also accused the CIA of effectively spying on committee staffers by improperly examining the computers that they had used to review millions of pages of classified material in the CIA facility.
In July, a CIA inspector general’s investigation found that the CIA did in fact access a drive intended solely for committee use, which prompted an apology from Brennan to Feinstein. Despite the apology, tensions between the two sides continue to simmer following the CIA’s decision to redact large swaths of the 6,300-page report that congressional aides say renders the report unreadable. (President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, has taken the rare step of flying to and from Feinstein’s home in San Francisco to help resolve the redaction dispute).
"With a change in leadership, there will certainly be some corresponding changes in priorities, in committee relations with the [intelligence community], and in the quality of oversight," Steven Aftergood, director of the Government Secrecy Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told FP. "A reckoning with torture will be out of the question for the foreseeable future and new limits on NSA collection practices will become less likely."
If Burr takes over as chair, he could easily sideline the committee’s vocal civil libertarian bloc led by Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and bolstered by Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), two senators who’ve called for Brennan’s resignation.
Udall, in particular, drew blunt criticisms from Burr earlier this year for disclosing the existence of an internal CIA review of the detention and interrogation program that Democrats believe vindicates their own study.
"I think Mark did make some public releases that were committee-sensitive information, but that’s for the committee internally to handle," Burr told reporters in March. "My concern is that the release of information could potentially cause the losses of life to Americans. That to me, is a threshold that should be addressed."
Udall has always vigorously denied any improper disclosures or the idea that exposing the Bush administration’s interrogation program endangers American lives. "The only thing I’ve done is exercise vigorous oversight over senior intelligence officials who are all too often unwilling to cooperate with Congress," he told reporters in March.
Another way the election could embolden the intelligence community is the potential ouster of Udall from the committee (and Congress in general): The Colorado Democrat continues to trail his Republican challenger, Cory Gardner, in recent polling.
Whichever party controls the Senate, civil liberties advocates remain concerned that the next committee chair won’t jealously guard the committee’s oversight role. "In light of the recent CIA committee spying scandal, I would hope any chairman on the intel committee would recognize the constitutional seriousness of the CIA obstructing the committee’s oversight work," said Scott Roehm, senior counsel at The Constitution Project, a nonprofit civil liberties group. "What the inspector general found was shocking."
Still, Burr is unlikely to be swayed by such critics. A foreign-policy hawk and a social conservative, Burr generally avoids the limelight but isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers on the left or the right. Although he’s fiscally conservative and voted against immigration reform, he ticked off some Republicans when he described Sen. Ted Cruz’s latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act the "dumbest idea" he’s ever heard.
Last year, Burr drew criticism from more than 190 North Carolina religious leaders, including Christians, Jews, Quakers, and Muslims, for opposing the release of the Senate’s post-9/11 torture report.
"The U.S. does not condone torture, but torture has been done by our citizens and in our country’s name," reads a letter the religious leaders sent Burr. "We are writing to you as fellow people of faith to support the release of the … report."
Disappointing the religious groups, Burr responded in a letter saying he opposed making the report public due to factual inaccuracies contained within the report. "I believe the American public should be provided with reports that are based on accurate facts," he said.
Burr and Chambliss, his longtime friend and colleague, have long held that the report includes omissions about the history of the program and fails to interview the people directly involved in the program. Ultimately, the committee voted to release the report last year. However, concerns from the CIA about sensitive details in the report resulted in a protracted negotiation between committee Democrats and the agency, with many Republicans taking the side of the CIA.
Rev. George Reed, a Baptist minister and the executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches, who signed and sent the anti-torture letter, told FP he was disappointed by Burr’s initial opposition to releasing the report, but is holding out hope that he could become a leader on this issue.
"By all accounts, he is a person of strong personal faith. His father was a highly regarded Presbyterian pastor. He and his wife are members of a vibrant United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem," Reed said. "We hope Sen. Burr will show strong moral leadership on this issue going forward. Our concern about detainee treatment grows out of the biblical teaching that all individuals are people of worth created in God’s image."