The Wrong Senator to Oversee the CIA

Richard Burr now leads the intelligence committee, but he seems more interested in protecting the agency than holding it accountable.

Senator Richard Burr is acting like a man who doesn't understand the role or duties that he now has. With the Republican Party assuming control of Congress, the North Carolinian is chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, the body charged with overseeing the CIA. His responsibilities are momentous. All senators are called to act as power-jealous checks on the executive branch. And the particular mission of the Senate intelligence committee, created in the wake of horrific CIA abuses, obligates Burr to “provide vigilant legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States" and "to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws.”

But as Senator Burr begins this job, he is behaving less like an overseer than a CIA asset. Rather than probe problems at the spy agency, of which there have been many, his first priority has been aiding CIA efforts to cover up past misdeeds. It is hard to imagine a more flagrantly inappropriate act by a head overseer.

Specifically, Burr is trying to help the CIA to suppress two reports on its torture of prisoners. Like the spy agency, he never wants the full reports to reach the public, and he is misusing his position on the oversight committee to advance that agenda. One report was commissioned by Leon Panetta, a former CIA director. Though it is classified, people who've seen it assert that it paints a scathing portrait of a spy agency that misled its overseers about the efficacy of tactics like waterboarding. No wonder current and former overseers on the intelligence committee, like Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, found great value in reading it.

But despite the significant value that some of Burr's fellow overseers insist that they gleaned from The Panetta Review, Burr wants to return the Senate committee's copy of the document back to the CIA. "The Panetta Review was never intended for the committee to have,” Burr told the Huffington Post. “At some point, we will probably send it back to where it came from.” On its face, the explanation makes no sense. Why would Burr speak as if the intentions of the CIA are dispositive? His job is to oversee the spy agency, not to respect its desire for privacy. What could be more antithetical to the proper posture of an overseer? (As if a bureaucracy would intentionally turn over evidence of its own abuses.)

The Senate intelligence committee ought to thirst for every drop of information it can get as it polices a secretive spy agency with a long history of hiding illegal acts. No overseer can credibly deny the value of a report showing how overseers were misled.

So what is Burr up to? The apparent explanation is that he's selling out his colleagues to protect the CIA from having to release The Panetta Review to the public. In Freedom of Information Act litigation initiated by investigative journalist Jason Leopold, it would be useful to the CIA to persuade a judge that The Panetta Review constitutes an internal CIA deliberation rather than an agency record. Burr's comments on The Panetta Review seem calculated to bolster that case.

What's more, Senator Burr is taking a similar stance consistent with that motivation: He is also intent on keeping the full Senate report on torture from the public.

In bygone years, Burr sided with the CIA and against a majority of his Senate colleagues in their effort to create a definitive report on torture during the Bush years. Now, again an effective lackey for the bureaucracy he's ostensibly overseeing, "Burr sent a letter... to the White House saying that his Democratic predecessor, Senator Dianne Feinstein, should never have transmitted the entire 6,700-page report to numerous departments and agencies within the executive branch—and requested that all copies of the report be 'returned immediately,'" the New York Times reports. The newspaper makes an informed guess about his motives:

Mr. Burr’s unusual letter to Mr. Obama might have been written with an eye toward future Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. Congress is not subject to such requests, and any success he has in getting the Obama administration to return all copies of the Senate report to the Intelligence Committee could hinder attempts to someday have the report declassified and released publicly.

Leopold, a FOIA expert, concurs. "By advising the White House to cease entering the full torture report into an executive branch system of records," he explains, "Burr is saying that the document is a 'congressional record,' which is exempt from FOIA, as opposed to an 'agency record,' which is subject to the provisions of the law."

Dianne Feinstein, who preceded Burr as head of the Senate intelligence committee, argues that his stance is wrongheaded. "I strongly disagree that the administration should relinquish copies of the full committee study, which contains far more detailed records than the public executive summary," she stated. "Doing so would limit the ability to learn lessons from this sad chapter in America’s history and omit from the record two years of work, including changes made to the committee’s 2012 report following extensive discussion with the CIA.”

Efforts by any U.S. Senator to spare the CIA accountability for its illegal torture are affronts to the rule of law, given that a treaty signed by a former president and duly ratified by the U.S. Senate compels America to fully investigate such crimes. But Burr's actions with respect to the CIA are particularly inappropriate and alarming given that they're being undertaken by the man most responsible for uncovering and stopping its abuses. His actions are close to the antithesis of his responsibilities.

As ACLU senior legislative counsel Chris Anders put it to Vice News, "Burr's attempt to recall the report seems like a bid to thwart Congress's own Freedom of Information Act, which protects the rights of the American people to learn about their own government. Americans should ask, if Senator Burr isn't going to serve his role in the Constitution's system of checks and balances, then why did he want to be chairman of the intelligence committee? This is a poor start to a chairmanship."

Indeed, this start strongly suggests that Burr is unfit for that chairmanship, which is no surprise. This is the same man who told interviewers in March, "I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly." If there is a politician less suited to fill a role created thanks to the Church Committee's work I can scarcely imagine what they'd say.

If the Republican Party has any desire for rigorous oversight of the intelligence community, they ought to strip Burr of his chairmanship. Since only a small faction of Senate Republicans concern themselves with CIA abuses, a more likely remedy is a strong Democratic challenger successfully claiming Burr's seat when he defends it in 2016–for unrelated reasons, he is already a target—or a Tea Party challenger from the Rand Paul/Mike Lee wing of the GOP mounting a primary challenge.

Presently, Burr shows greater concern for protecting CIA secrets from FOIA and leaks than conducting rigorous oversight, despite his unique responsibility for the latter. Past and present CIA lawbreakers can rest easier thanks to his dereliction of duty.