Nation’s Top Spies Will Have to Smile for the Cameras After All

After blasting the existence of public hearings, the Senate’s top intelligence overseer changes his tune.

Intelligence Chiefs Testify At House Hearing On National Security Threats
<> on January 29, 2014 in Washington, DC.

For much of his career, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, has made his distaste for public hearings widely known within the intelligence world.

The televised grilling of America’s top spies, in the view of the Republican from North Carolina, needlessly risked disclosing national security secrets and provided little oversight benefit. In fact, Burr despised public hearings so much that he vowed to put an end to the practice if he were in charge.

“I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly,” Burr told reporters last year. “If I had my way, with the exception of nominees, there would never be a public intelligence hearing.”

But that was last March — before Republicans took over the Senate and before they placed Burr at the helm of the committee.

Now, Burr feels differently about the benefit of public hearings, and plans to hold his first one this week.

“Chairman Burr strongly believes that we should take every necessary precaution to make certain that Congress is not endangering our brave intelligence officials who are working to keep Americans safe,” Burr’s spokeswoman, Rebecca Glover Watkins, told Foreign Policy in a statement. “The chairman looks forward to the committee’s first public hearing … and will ensure that our assets overseas are protected from any adverse scenarios that could jeopardize their work or lives.”

It’s unclear what changed Burr’s mind — his office would not elaborate on his position — but the about-face will provide some relief to government transparency advocates who believe public hearings are a core aspect of congressional oversight and some disappointment to intelligence officials who loathe the scrutiny of public interrogations.

As recently as last week, one intelligence official told FP he expected Burr to hold true to his opposition to the format — noting Burr’s habit of skipping hearings he believed shouldn’t have been public.

But those expectations will be dashed on Thursday when the committee holds a public hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building to examine the efforts of the National Counterterrorism Center, the country’s terrorism information clearinghouse. It has been widely criticized within intelligence circles as an unnecessary level of middle management that further separates policymakers from the intelligence analysts at agencies like the CIA who prepare the material they’re given. Burr’s spokeswoman would not provide any further details on the nature of the hearing.

A plausible explanation for the senator’s change of heart is the power that public hearings afford the committee in its dealings with the 17 distinct agencies that are part of the U.S. intelligence community.

In an age when U.S. officials routinely stonewall congressional requests for information under the guise of “national security” and executive privilege, the ability to scrutinize top spies under the glare of TV cameras bestows a chairman with significant clout.

“When the intelligence committees talk to the public and the press it is not because of some idealistic belief in transparency,” Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, told FP. “They do it because it is one of the most important tools they have to exercise leverage on the executive branch. No committee chair is going to give up that tool if he hopes to be effective.”

Whatever the intent of holding a hearing, the forum does provide the public at least a nominal window into the activities of the country’s sprawling intelligence apparatus — no small service at a time when skepticism in American spycraft reaches a new high.

According to an Associated Press-GfK poll last month, almost 60 percent of respondents said they do not approve of Obama’s handling of intelligence surveillance policies. And 61 percent favor protecting civil liberties over keeping the country safe from terrorist attacks — an increase from 58 percent taken in a similar poll in August.

That follows the Obama administration’s declassification of thousands of documents pertaining to secret intelligence programs designed to restore trust in the executive branch.

Just last week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a new set of principles on intelligence transparency designed to promote greater openness. The guidelines are somewhat vague and bureaucratic-sounding — such as a call to “provide appropriate transparency to enhance public understanding about the [Intelligence Community’s] mission and what the IC does to accomplish it (including its structure and effectiveness).”

Whether a Burr-led committee will be able to bring greater clarity to these complex and technical details remains unclear, but at least he’s no longer automatically opposed to utilizing public hearings for such purposes.

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