WILMINGTON, North Carolina — Every morning that he’s in Washington, long before most of his colleagues make their way to the Hill, Richard Burr treks to his Senate office for an intelligence briefing. As the day wears on, he’ll spend around six hours on briefings, reports and intelligence issues, and when he’s not in the Beltway, he’s arranging secure phone calls from remote sites.
Here in North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is in the race of his life. But Burr can't and won't talk about much of his intelligence committee work. And in a state that houses key national security institutions — Army’s Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Operations Command and several military intelligence agencies — he’s banking on voters to understand.
“I don’t try to [talk about intelligence],” he told BuzzFeed News at a defense industry conference in Wilmington Thursday. “125,000 active duty troops — they get it. They understand the importance of that in our national security framework.”
This unexpectedly heated senate race is a case study for the eternal headache of Intelligence Committee members’ campaign directors: it’s a coveted, demanding assignment in Washington, but in-cycle members can’t use much of it on the trail.
"It’s tough enough to win in a battleground state, but when the candidate can’t talk freely about his own record, it’s a messaging nightmare," said one GOP strategist who worked several tough reelection campaigns. "While posts like Intel are hugely important, I wouldn’t advise Senators from purple states to pursue them….unless they’re confident they can convince voters to reelect them using 'I can’t talk about that' as a campaign slogan."
The dilemma is Burr’s this election season, but he’s not the first to face it. Mark Udall, a Colorado democrat who lost his seat to Corey Gardner in 2014, faced a similar quandary during his ultimately unsuccessful bid for reelection. Udall made a name for himself in Washington as a champion of civil liberties causes, challenging the intelligence community’s sweeping domestic surveillance programs — but focused his campaign on other issues.
“Service on the intelligence committee is time intensive,” said one of Udall’s former advisors, requesting anonymity to speak about the campaign's internal discussions. “By its very nature, it’s not something you can openly discuss on the campaign trail.”
The committee itself does little to ease this burden on its members. It’s wide-ranging and borderline tyrannical rules don’t just forbid Senators or their staff from acknowledging the secret programs they oversee, but also bar them from discussing “committee-sensitive information,” which could include anything from personnel changes to discussions over public, unclassified bills.
North Carolina’s toss-up race has tested the boundaries of what Burr is and isn’t willing to say to sell his effectiveness in Washington to voters. He’s fielded consistent blows from his Democratic opponent, Deborah Ross, on several fronts, including his continued support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. But Ross and the Democrats have also hit Burr on his low attendance record during a brief stint on the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying Burr’s asking voters to “re-elect him to a job he barely showed up for.”
Burr’s Intelligence Committee record would show otherwise. Since taking over chairmanship in 2014 of the Intelligence Committee, one of Washington’s most powerful oversight panels, Burr has attended nearly every one of its meetings — and the committee, which gathers at minimum twice a week, has one of the most rigorous schedules in Congress. When meetings aren’t happening, you can often find him down the hall from the Intelligence Committee’s top-secret hearing room in its secure office spaces, getting additional briefings or meeting with agency directors. CIA Director John Brennan is a frequent guest.
Despite low expectations — Burr once said he didn’t think any part of intelligence oversight should be public — he’s overhauled the committee’s hearing schedule to include seven open hearings over the last eighteen months, and has led several bipartisan reform efforts. From 2011 to 2015, under then-chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the panel had only thirteen open sessions over four years. Unlike his predecessor, Burr has also encouraged a rigorous travel schedule, taking pointed interest congressional oversight visits to intelligence sites.
But he hasn’t cited much of this on the trail, and at points, has bristled when asked about specific intelligence issues. At North Carolina’s only senate debate, he refused to back the Administration’s public statement blaming Russia for a string of cyberattacks built to manipulate the election, a controversial move that he stood by on Wednesday.
“I chose not to comment on it because, to say anything that wasn’t word for word what Gen. Clapper said...I was jeopardizing sources and methods based on something that never should have been in the public arena,” Burr said.
With twelve days to go to election day, Burr is hoping North Carolinians trust him at the helm of the intelligence panel, even if most of his work is secret.
“I’ll leave it up to the average person to determine what the value is to them,” Burr said. “Many people in North Carolina...don’t ask me specifics about intelligence, but they have a sense of why that’s important.”
Tarini Parti contributed to this report.
Ali Watkins is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Ali Watkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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