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The Stealth Senator: Keeper of the Secrets of the Ark of the Covenant

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In a front-page New York Times story (November 10, "Classified Report on the C.I.A.'s Secret Prisons Is Caught in Limbo") it was suggested that the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), equates access by the the Executive Branch to evidence of C.I.A. crimes with an enemy crusade. Indeed, he has succeeded, so far, in locking up--unread--in government vaults across Washington the full, classified Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency's detention, interrogation, and torture program.

It would appear that the White House is complicit in this coverup. Due to a Justice Department edict, even the government officials currently in charge of counter-terrorism programs are prohibited from reading about the dark past--as if it did not exist.

Referenced in the bizarre tale by reporters Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo was the 1981 film Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, starring Jones (Harrison Ford) up against a group of Nazis who were searching for the Ark of the Covenant. In the closing scene, the Ark was placed by intelligence agents in a wooden crate in a government warehouse of secrets. In the course of searching for the ark said to be in the Well of Souls, the fictional Jones had survived harrowing escapes from snakes and angels of death.

The reptiles that Burr (and the C.I.A. practitioners of torture) in reality fear are the details of the heinous acts of torture described in the 6700-page classified Senate report, accompanied by thousands of photographs. (The live recordings of the torture sessions had been peremptorily destroyed by the senior Agency official who takes credit for running the program, Jose Rodriguez, the former head of the National Clandestine Service.)

The report named the officials--some of whom are still employed by the C.I.A.--and unprofessional contract employees who were involved, and identified the foreign governments who cooperated in maintaining the black sites where detainees were imprisoned. Of course, there were details on the role of other government agencies in the hidden prison program.

In an unprecedented attempt at a legislative coverup, Sen. Burr--since he became chairman--has gone so far as to demand that the Executive Branch return every copy of the vaulted Senate report. Moreover, he has tried to dismiss it as a footnote in history and as an attempt to smear former president George W. Bush.

What has not been acknowledged is that Mr. Burr was actively involved in approving (with a nod and a wink) the capture and questioning of terrorist suspects in secret prisons beyond the reach of American law. As far back as 2006, then C.I.A. director Gen. Michael Hayden had expanded those fully briefed on the torture program to include all members of the intelligence oversight committee.

Thanks to the non-classified summary of the report published in the national press--as released by the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), in December 2014--we know that the main conclusion was that the interrogation methods, including waterboarding and other methods of torture, were far more brutal and decidedly less effective than the C.I.A. had acknowledged to executive and legislative policymakers.

If yet more vivid details were to get out, such revelations would constitute an stain on Sen. Burr's (and other overseers') reputations, while holding publicly accountable individual C.I.A. personnel for their dark deeds. In other words, bottling up the classified version of the report is the means for covering everybody's fanny.

It has become ever more obvious, since he became the chairman of the intelligence committee, that Sen. Burr is not interested in performing critical legislative oversight of the intelligence agencies--most notably the Central Intelligence Agency--but instead acts as protector from serious public scrutiny of both criminal and unconstitutional acts.

The C.I.A. is engaged in waging war via clandestine drone strikes in several countries--blanket "signature" strikes in Pakistan, and frequent attacks in Somalia and Yemen--without Congressional authorization. Collateral damage is a given; innocent civilians are killed. While Burr--with no legal or military background--denies expertise in military strategy, he and his colleagues provide legislative cover for warmaking. (See Burr on CBS Face the Nation, November 15.)

Ever since the founding of the permanent Senate Intelligence Committee in the late 1970's, statutory law--strengthened over time--has required the C.I.A. as a surrogate for the White House to give notice to the Senate committee of significant, anticipated covert actions. Alas, under Sen. Burr, the evidence suggests that the Agency in Langley and the Intelligence Committee on the Hill have become a mutual admiration society.

Burr is up for re-election in 2016. The electorate in North Carolina will be treated to the most unusual spectacle of an incumbent candidate--a sort of stealth senator--not being willing to talk about his chief responsibility in chairing a committee that is a vital cog in the wheels of the national security state.