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The CIA's Favorite Senator Will Soon Be In Charge of CIA Oversight

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Tuesday’s Republican takeover of the Senate effectively ruined any chance of Congressional oversight of the CIA. Senator Mark Udall, who earned a score of 100 percent from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lost his seat in Colorado. And Senator Richard Burr, with an ACLU score of 0 percent, is set to become Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the group tasked with holding the CIA and the NSA accountable. 

He will replace Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has consistently defended the CIA’s targeted killing campaign and the NSA’s mass collection of communication records. Although many felt Feinstein was too cozy with the intelligence agencies, she gave a scathing speech on the Senate floor in March, accusing the CIA of lying about the severity of their detention and interrogation programs and illegally searching the computers of Senate staffers working on the SSCI’s final review of the program. Burr replied to Feinstein’s speech by telling reporters,  “I personally don't believe that anything that goes on in the intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly.” And when he takes charge, he’ll presumably do everything in his power to make sure that it won’t.

Historically, Congress has tended to give the CIA a free pass, with a few exceptions. In 1975, the Church Committee published 14 reports detailing illegal CIA activity ranging from plots to assassinate foreign leaders to the opening and reading of domestic mail. The Church Committee discoveries led to the creation of the House and Senate Select Committees on Oversight, which were supposed to serve as a permanent check on CIA power. Whatever limited oversight these committees provided largely dissipated after September 11.

But it appears the CIA crossed a line when it effectively attempted to oversee Congressional overseers who were investigating detention and interrogation programs. Feinstein’s speech in March was the harshest Congressional criticism of the CIA since the Church Committee. Burr saw it as out of bounds: “Dianne may have some problems with it, but I think we’ve gotten a full accounting of what happened,” he told Politico.

Burr also attacked Senator Udall for sending a letter to President Obama urging him to declassify the Senate Committee’s findings on the CIA’s torture program to the fullest extent possible. Republicans on the Senate intelligence oversight committee immediately criticized him for disclosing classified information—some called for him to be reviewed by the Senate Ethics Committee. Soon-to-be-Chairman Burr said, “I think Mark did make some public releases that were committee-sensitive information, but that’s for the committee internally to handle…That’s being reviewed right now.” 

Now Udall is on his way out and Burr is well positioned to promote a culture of deference to the CIA as the head of the Senate intelligence committee. Far from seeking to rein in the CIA, he has loudly trumpeted one of the agency’s biggest lies: that the torture program worked. Immediately after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, Burr claimed, “The information that eventually led us to this compound was the direct result of enhanced interrogations; one can conclude if we had not used enhanced interrogations, we would not have come to yesterday's action.” 

This is a direct contradiction of the findings of the 6,700-page report on enhanced interrogations, written by his own committee. Congressional aides familiar with the still-classified findings have said the report concludes that waterboarding and enhanced interrogation methods provided no key evidence that led to locating bin Laden.

It is possible that back in 2011, Burr believed in good faith that torture yielded results. After all, part of the Democrats’ criticism of the CIA stems from the fact that the Agency willfully misled members Congress on the effectiveness of the detention and interrogation program. 

Burr, however, isn’t asking for an apology from the CIA and he doesn’t want the report that uncovers CIA misconduct to be public. He wants to return the Senate intelligence oversight committee to the obsequious body that it has been for most of its existence. 

One of the few times Burr publicly criticized the intelligence agency was during John Brennan’s nomination hearing, where he complained that the CIA had delayed in providing the Committee documents on the 2012 Benghazi embassy attack. But of course, this wasn’t an attempt to hold the CIA accountable; it was part of the Republican Party’s obsessive determination to uncover wrongdoing by the Obama administration related to Benghazi.

In fact, the only time Burr asked Brennan about the CIA’s highly contentious detention and interrogation program was to corner Brennan into testifying that the interrogation program was helpful. And he only specifically mentioned waterboarding to make a crude joke: “I’m going to try to be brief,” he said before beginning to question Brennan. “I’ve noticed you’re on your fourth glass of water, and I don’t want to be accused of waterboarding you.”

Correction: The article originally said incorrectly that Senator Burr did not ask Brennan about the interrogation program. It has been updated.