THE BLOG

Sen. Richard Burr: The Cloak and Dagger Senator

05/29/2015 10:49 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016
Sara D. Davis via Getty Images

North Carolina voters should do due diligence on the national security record of Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). From his frequent appearances on network news shows, it is obvious that he is running for re-election on his cloak and dagger work as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which makes accountability difficult to establish. At the same time, it has become clear that -- rather than exercising critical legislative oversight of the intelligence community's most controversial activities from paramilitary drone strikes to N.S.A. bulk collection of phone records -- Mr. Burr all too often is a cheerleader for whatever is going down.

No sooner had he become committee chairman this year when he staged an unheard of stunt in trying to reclaim from the executive branch copies of a classified report -- revealing new evidence of torture via "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the Central Intelligence Agency -- in order to bury it. It had been issued by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and the committee only weeks earlier.

Thus, Burr attempted to erase from the official record the detailed report on the heinous conduct of clandestine operatives as the agency moved suspected terrorists from one black site to another around the world, while brutally mistreating them. If the declassified summary of the full report had not been published in national newspapers, there would have been no trace of what the senator has endeavored to cover up.

On April 26, 2015, following President Obama's admission of a botched drone mission in Pakistan back in January that resulted in the killing of a kidnapped American hostage, an Italian hostage, and an American member of al-Qaeda, The New York Times ran a front-page story -- "Deep Support in Washington For C.I.A.'s Drone Missions" -- that named several career covert operations officials in the agency's Special Activities Division who have shared responsibility in directing drone assassinations. Incidentally, some identified perpetrators of torture reportedly are still on the agency's payroll.

The Intelligence Committee is notified by the C.I.A. of significant anticipated covert actions, with special attention given to targeted Americans. The Times' report also provided a rare glimpse of Sen. Burr when being briefed back in 2013 as he pressed the agency to be more aggressive in hunting down and killing a suspected terrorist, an American citizen, who had become a top al Qaeda operative in Pakistan. (He was captured and is now facing trial in Brooklyn.)

The C.I.A. has become a premier actor in the conduct of American foreign policy. Although President Obama has insisted that the C.I.A. and Special Operations Forces take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, drone strikes have resulted in numerous deaths of Pakistani, Afghan and Yemeni civilians. An investigation of American drone strikes in Yemen, for example, has concluded that the Obama administration did not follow its own rules to avoid civilian casualties. ("Drone Strikes Said to Set A Dangerous Precedent," The New York Times, April 14, 2015.) The failure is often in the intelligence about who it is the government is killing.

Yet, Sen. Burr recently crowed: "I believe we do an incredibly effective oversight job on all of the C.I.A.'s programs. And there is no program that receives the level of oversight as the ones we carry out in Pakistan." ("Sen. Burr Deflects Questions About Calling for Drone Killing," McClatchy, April 29, 2015.) Stuff and nonsense! Who would know?

The January 15 (2015) strike in Pakistan that killed the hostages reportedly was not brought to the president's attention until mid-April. It was a "signature strike" -- uniquely permitted in Pakistan by the C.I.A. -- a category in which the agency has authority to attack based on suspicious patterns of activity even when it cannot identify the individuals being targeted. ("Obama Apologizes for Attack That Killed Two Hostages," Washington Post, April 24, 2015.)

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper once joked that only one entity in the universe has complete visibility over all government intelligence programs: "That's God."

It is downright strange for a U.S. Senator, running for re-election in our democracy, to embrace a code of ultra-secrecy surrounding his main brief in Congress. Nevertheless, look for Sen. Burr to go about the country pretending to know all about sensitive intelligence matters; but, alas, he is not free to discuss them. This is the perfect foil for an unaccountable public official, if he is allowed to get away with it.

Moreover, Burr suffers from clientitis, co-opted by the bureaucrats he is supposed to ride herd on. His "imperfect best guesses" are no better than his latest CIA briefing.

(I served as chief legislative assistant to the Senate Majority Whip, 1974-77, and was involved in drafting the charter of the Senate Intelligence Committee when it was first established.)