James Madison must be turning over in his grave, for the constitutional system of checks and balances he devised is being steadily undermined in today’s Washington. No better example of this reality could be provided than the role of the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Strangely, Sen. Richard Burr is an incumbent senator who refuses to substantively discuss the central issues that monopolize the time of his major committee. But that is the knot on a log stance of Burr. He is gambling that he can utter the word “terrorism” – appealing to fear – and not face any tough questions from the media or the public. He might as well be a deep cover official of the CIA.
Burr’s own inflated description of his job is suspect. He recently claimed that his leadership of the intelligence committee soaks up most of his time: “The majority of every day is consumed in reading the overnight intel reports (and) meeting with foreign leaders – from presidents to chiefs of their intelligence community.” He estimated that credible threats are emanating from five or six terrorist groups in 17 countries targeted globally on any given day in multiple locations. “The sheer volume of it is almost overwhelming.”
His committee has a large staff to stay up with such matters. The critical question is why the elected senator is using his time this way, since no one claims that Burr does anything with the information he receives – except an occasional comment to show that he is up on things. He is known for approving (sometimes with a wink and a nod) whatever Gen. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, and CIA director John Brennan bring before the committee in the way of covert operations findings or new programs.
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Not learned in constitutional law, Burr operates in almost complete secrecy. He is a cog in the machinery of the national security state and an apologist for the multiple intelligence agencies, spurning any substantive discussion of his oversight responsibilities – including when appearing frequently on TV talk shows.
Typically, the Burr campaign has posted a video montage of the senator talking to people – titled “Richard Burr Behind The Scenes” – in which there is no narration, so nothing can be learned about his record in Washington.
His most notable publicity as head of the intelligence committee has come from his successful, if unprecedented, attempt to hide the Senate “torture” report by bottling up the classified version of the December 2014 report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and thereby denying all copies of it to agencies of the Executive Branch. In other words, he promoted a coverup by burying it.
Secondly, in a prolonged 2015 Senate floor debate, he and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the legally impaired Patriot Act when arguing against the modest effort at intelligence reforms in the new USA Freedom Act.
Within the vaulted walls of his committee, here is a sampling of what has transpired on his watch as a long-time member, and now chairman, of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
▪ Supported sending enemy prisoners overseas for detention, interrogation and torture in CIA “black sites” – a program he was briefed on as far back as 2006, according to former CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden. Burr was recently embarrassed by a Washington Post report that the chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo (Gen. Mark Martins) had stipulated in a legal motion: “the facts contained within the executive summary (of the Senate torture report) occurred.” Gen. Martins put himself at odds with both CIA director Brennan, and the senator, who had claimed that the report by the intelligence committee was not reliable.
▪ Advocated, when being briefed by the man who calls the shots on drone strikes (Brennan), a more aggressive approach in carrying out clandestine “signature” strikes and targeted killings in several countries (from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia). This account was leaked to the New York Times
▪ Supported NSA electronic surveillance of American citizens’ phone calls on an “ongoing, daily basis,” without warrants under a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court order that prohibited Verizon from revealing the operation. Burr and his committee will soon be asked to support NSA sharing of the private communications it intercepts with other intelligence agencies, thereby permitting analysts at the other agencies to obtain direct access to raw information without first applying privacy protections;
▪ Supported demands by the FBI that American businesses turn over personal information about customers in response to “national security letters” that require no probable cause and cannot be disclosed;
▪ Failed to condemn the government’s seizure of the phone records of reporters and editors of the Associated Press, including their home and cell phones, without notice;
▪ Supported the NSA’s warrantless tapping into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails and connection logs that enabled analysts to track foreign targets and U.S. citizens.
These scratch the surface of Burr’s involvement with his intelligence community masters.
Burr is an intimate part of a system that threatens the fundamental rights and values of American citizens. In short, Burr is hostile to constitutional governance. Why have a legislature?
William E. Jackson Jr. of Davidson was legislative assistant to the Senate Majority Whip 1974-76 and involved in crafting the original mandate of the Senate Intelligence Committee.