Since becoming chairman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee nearly two years ago, Republican Richard Burr has drawn the ire of a long list of critics: Civil liberties groups, tech companies, liberal religious leaders, and a few of his Democratic colleagues.
They say North Carolina’s senior senator has not placed a high enough priority on protecting Americans’ privacy and has been a protector, not a watchdog, of the CIA and the National Security Agency.
But Burr, running this year for a third term, says he’s “fairly confident” his constituents back home see value in having him in such a key post at a time when Americans fear the next terrorist attack on the homeland and worry that their personal information could wind up in the hands of foreign hackers.
Burr kicked off his re-election campaign with a TV ad touting his chairmanship of the 15-member committee that operates mainly behind closed doors. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was created in 1976 to oversee the CIA, the NSA, and other federal intelligence agencies and propose legislation related to their activities.
“As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee,” the narrator said in the 30-second campaign ad, “Richard Burr’s fighting for the intelligence and the tools needed to protect America and to change our strategy on terrorism to make America strong at home and abroad.”
He’s now locked in a tight race with Democrat Deborah Ross. But Burr has told his campaign staff that his duties as chairman – among the most time-consuming jobs in Congress – may keep him in Washington during times when they and national GOP strategists would prefer to see him back in North Carolina meeting with voters.
That diligence has won Burr a reputation across party lines as a serious lawmaker who cares about the details.
“Much of what we end up doing on the (Intelligence) committee must be unanimous, and that can really be a test of leadership,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the panel’s newer members, told the Observer. “Richard is a strong, accomplished and bipartisan leader.”
But Burr, a former football player at Wake Forest University, has also bashed President Barack Obama for what he considers a weak response to ISIS and the crisis in Syria. And Burr’s conservative stands on national security issues have made him popular with hawkish Republicans.
A SuperPAC run by John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, plans to spend $1 million in the coming weeks promoting Burr’s “proven leadership ... in upgrading our intelligence services.”
Then there are Burr’s critics, who say he isn’t doing his job as head of a committee whose mission is to hold the intelligence agencies accountable, not be their cheerleader.
Their exhibit A in the case against Burr: His efforts to bury a 6,000-plus-page report initiated by his predecessor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that detailed the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including water-boarding, during the Bush administration.
Burr, who charged that the report was “flawed, biased and political in nature,” refused last year to hold public hearings on it and even wrote President Obama asking that he return copies of the report that Feinstein had sent to various national security-related agencies in the executive branch.
“Burr seems to have shown little interest in meaningful oversight,” Chris Anders, deputy director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said about Burr’s record as chairman. “Instead of ... acting as a check on the power of the CIA, the NSA and other (agencies), there’s a tendency by some senators and House members when they get on the intelligence committees to act as if they are part of the intelligence community. For the past two years, the Senate Intelligence Committee seems to have fallen into that trap.”
NC Stop Torture Now, a group of faith and human rights activists in North Carolina, has even called Burr “one of the chief defenders of CIA abuses.”
Burr strongly disputes the charge that he doesn’t take oversight seriously.
“It’s hard for anybody to really know what Richard Burr does because it’s not public,” he told the Observer. “I think if you were able to get inside the intelligence world they would tell you that I have been the toughest on oversight and on them that they’ve had to be in front of.”
Burr also said he has held more open committee hearings with intelligence agency heads than his predecessors did – a total of six so far, according to his staff.
Though Burr acknowledged that he and other committee members raised no questions about the CIA’s use of water-boarding after the 9-11 attacks, “looking back on it, enhanced interrogation should not be part of the future of detention and interrogation.”
But, he added, “I will also fight for the things that I don’t think are wrong so that our soldiers and our intelligence community and law enforcement have the tools they need to do their job.”
Since Burr became chairman in January 2015, something else has happened on the committee of eight Republicans and seven Democrats that’s rare in Washington: After a rocky start over the CIA report, Burr and Feinstein, the panel’s vice chair and its top Democrat, have worked together on major legislation.
“Senator Burr and I are able to put aside our disagreement on the report,” Feinstein said in a statement to the Observer. “We have a fundamentally good relationship and have worked together on almost every important issue that has come before the committee. We sit down. We discuss problems. We hear each other out. We make decisions. Sometimes he gives and sometimes I give.”
The two joined forces on CISA – the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act. The Senate passed it 74-21 nearly a year ago, in the wake of headline-grabbing cybersecurity breaches at Sony Pictures and Home Depot. It encourages private companies and the federal government to share information with each other about hackers and cybersecurity threats. The goal: Better protection against such theft.
Despite the lopsided vote, the cybersecurity bill did draw some opposition, with privacy groups worried that government agencies and local police could end up with customers’ personal information.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups supported the bill, which had been introduced in previous years only to falter, and Burr considers it landmark legislation.
“People said it couldn’t be done. We did it. It’s law,” Burr said. “And I think most would tell you that it’s done more to prepare America for the 21st century and the challenges that we’ll be faced with.”
Fight over report
Before Burr was elected to the Senate in 2004, he served 10 years in the House, representing the Winston-Salem area. For four of those years – including 2001, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on 9-11 – he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich added him to the panel after Burr told him a North Carolinian should be a member, given the “military footprint” in the state created by Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, Special Forces and Defense Intelligence.
Burr jumped to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2007.
In the years since, the panel has kept busy dealing not only with terrorist attacks here and abroad but also with fallout from the public revelation of what had been secret programs and practices by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Many were stunned to learn – via leaks by former National Security Agency systems administrator Edward Snowden – that the NSA was vacuuming up Americans’ and foreigners’ phone call records.
And in 2014, the committee’s traditional bipartisanship was shattered, at least briefly, by its report saying the CIA relied on brutal techniques in interrogating detainees. It also alleged the spy agency failed to gather valuable information, misled the Justice Department and stymied Congress’ attempt at oversight.
“Despite relentless attacks by the CIA and other agency officials,” Feinstein said in her statement to the Observer, “no factual errors have been found, and it is my firm belief the report will stand the test of time.”
But Republicans on the committee ripped the report, with Burr saying in December of that year that it “only endangers our officers and allies in a blatant attempt to smear the Bush administration.”
Burr, who became the committee’s chairman a month later, refused to hold public hearings – “Put this report down as a footnote in history,” he said – and tried to retrieve those copies of the report still in the possession of the Obama administration.
The ACLU has gone to court to try, unsuccessfully so far, to get the report released to the public via the Freedom of Information Act – a law that covers the executive branch, but not Congress. The Justice Department, whose lawyers are fighting the ACLU lawsuit, has ordered the executive branch agencies that received the report from Feinstein to lock it up unread.
“There’s no reason Sen. Burr should be asking for a return of the report other than to try to cover up for the CIA,” the ACLU’s Anders said. “That’s not oversight; that’s the opposite of oversight.”
The sharpest rebuke of Burr came this year in a column, published in the Observer, by Larry Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
By refusing to “come to grips” with the torture program, Wilkerson wrote, Burr “ensures our real power in the world is diminished by the unpunished criminals in our midst.”
Burr’s answer? “It’s very simple. There were sources and methods in that report that should never be public. It puts Americans’ lives in danger,” he told the Observer. “And everything that was in that report was not factual.”
Plus, he said, “I believe the American people understand that there are some things that happen in the intelligence world that they shouldn’t be privy to.”
As chairman of Senate Intelligence and a member of the “Gang of Eight” – a small group of congressional leaders, including the Speaker of the House and the two chambers’ majority and minority leaders – Burr is privy to the most highly classified information.
That “weighty responsibility” was one reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell picked Burr to head the panel, said Cotton, citing the N.C. senator’s “long experience, seriousness of purpose and work ethic.”
But in the fight against terrorism, Burr favors some tools that are controversial. Among them: Requiring tech companies to abide by court orders to provide “technical assistance” to law enforcement trying to get the contents of encrypted, or locked, data from cellphones and computers during terrorism and criminal investigations.
This year, Burr and Feinstein released draft legislation that won support from law enforcement. The FBI and local police and prosecutors, including those in Charlotte, are frustrated by the ability of terrorists and others to keep their plots secret by using encrypted devices.
“On terrorism, if you don’t get into their communication, it’s like steering a boat without a wheel,” said Joseph Wippl, formerly the CIA’s director of congressional affairs.
But the Burr-Feinstein draft got a thumbs down from privacy advocates and the tech community. They worry that weakening encryption by creating a workaround or “back door” to aid law enforcement could end up compromising everybody’s security by also making it easier for foreign hackers.
Some of Burr’s fellow senators, including Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have said they’ll oppose, even filibuster, any such bill.
“Chairman Burr’s proposal to weaken strong encryption would expose law-abiding Americans to new threats from foreign hackers, reduce the competitiveness of our high-skill, high-wage companies and put at risk our privacy,” Wyden, who sits on the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “For innovation hubs like Oregon’s Silicon Forest and North Carolina’s Research Triangle, weakening strong encryption is bad news all around.”
Wyden has also been a critic of the NSA surveillance that Snowden exposed.
Burr defended the NSA program. His opinion of Edward Snowden? “What he did was treason,” Burr said.
Deborah Ross’ campaign spokeman Cole Leiter charged that, as chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Burr has been “party-first ... on issues of our national security.”
Case in point: Democrats have criticized Burr’s endorsement of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whom 50 Republican foreign policy and national security experts recently said “would be the most reckless president in American history.”
Burr said he disagreed with the group’s assessment of Trump’s commander-in-chief qualifications and pointed to other national security experts – 88 generals – who recently endorsed Trump.
With tightening polls, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is pouring $6.7 million into North Carolina to try to beat Burr.
The GOP senator, who is banking on his national security credentials and his own campaign’s TV attacks on Ross, said he always expected the race to be “competitive.”
“For those who would like to write my obituary (weeks) before an election, go to it,” Burr said. “But I’m fairly confident North Carolinians are astute enough to put a value on the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.”
The Associated Press and the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.