Is Sen. Burr playing politics with classified intelligence? | News
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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Is Sen. Burr playing politics with classified intelligence?

Posted by on Wed, Dec 16, 2015 at 5:26 PM

click to enlarge Richard Burr
  • Richard Burr
The day after the latest debate in the Republican presidential primary, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, in his position as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that his staff was “looking into the possibility” that Sen. Ted Cruz leaked classified information on live television. Burr has not made any such statement, however, about a previous, less-covered leak by Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of Burr’s committee. Furthermore, Burr, by publicly confirming an investigation into whether or not Cruz leaked a specific percentage of phone records covered by the new USA Freedom Act, might have inadvertently confirmed that the numbers are legitimate.

Cruz and Rubio have been sparring for weeks over issues of national security and surveillance, and Rubio has hit Cruz as soft due to his affirmative vote on the USA Freedom Act. Passed in May with a two-thirds majority, the bill was touted by supporters, including Cruz, as ending massive government surveillance, whereas opponents—Rubio and Burr both voted against it—said it would make America weaker.

Last night, in an attempt to show he wasn’t weak on national security, Cruz pointed out that the new program covers “nearly 100 percent of phone records” to “search for terrorists,” while the old program only covered “20 or 30 percent.” Rubio, in response, accused Cruz of leaking classified information on national television during a widely watched debate. Burr, who has no love lost with Cruz, told the AP’s Erica Werner that he “asked his staff to look into it and see if there was any validity to it.” (Cruz’s campaign told The News & Observer that everything Cruz said was “all publicly available.”)

Rubio should know what leaking classified information on national television looks like; he himself inadvertently leaked just last week (in an appearance on Fox News, go figure) that the intelligence community is asking “a large and significant number of companies” for their metadata records. Rubio, in trying to make a point that companies having no obligation to comply with an order from the “intelligence community or law enforcement” makes us vulnerable, told the whole country that we’re going after companies’ metadata. It’s worth reiterating here that Rubio is actually a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, meaning he is privy to more direct information on these policies than Cruz.

Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist who focuses on national security and civil liberties and who broke the story that Rubio leaked classified information, told the INDY that what Cruz said would be classified as a leak “if [Cruz] got briefed on it.” Burr has already said that he didn’t think he was.

“His report that they only got 20 to 30 percent was publicly reported in February 2014,” Wheeler says. “The new information is that one, they’re close to 100 percent, and two, that they’re close to 100 percent by including cell phones and Internet phones.”

While Cruz is apparently under investigation by Burr’s staff, Rubio has faced no such scrutiny since he made his comments last Monday. (Burr’s office did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on whether Rubio’s comments would also be investigated.) “When Rubio said that lots of companies are refusing orders, that has to be classified,” Wheeler says. “The government has made multiple declarations in court cases involving Section 215 dragnet challenges that you’re not even allowed to know how many phone companies are complying.”

As for Burr’s role, Wheeler argues that he was “absolutely” playing politics with who he’s investigating: After all, he agrees with Rubio’s position. She also contends that Rubio and Burr have been lying about the supposed ineffectiveness of the USA Freedom Act in order to advance their political agenda, a giant mass surveillance program similar to the United Kingdom’s.

“Rubio has been out there making these claims about what the USA Freedom Act includes, and they’re not true,” she says. “He’s doing it in part for political advantage in the presidential race, but he’s also doing it because … these hawks on the intelligence committee would like to drastically expand collections. And that’s something Burr definitely agrees with.”

This is not Burr’s first controversial disclosure since becoming the chairman of the SSCI. Back in May—as Wheeler also covered—he said on the Senate floor that bulk collections include IP addresses, but for some mysterious reason, this was taken out of the congressional record.

“I think what Burr was not telling the truth on that,” Wheeler says. “What he was trying to do was create the appearance of congressional approval that they could collect Internet records. I and others called him on that, he retracted it; he made another attempt to do so legislatively, and that failed miserably. I think what he and Rubio are trying to do with these public lies is to expand how they collect.”

Update: Burr, who did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment, has apparently changed his mind. In a statement released with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Burr wrote, without explanation, “The committee is not investigating anything said during last night's Republican presidential debate.”

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