In a wide-ranging talk at the Sanford School of Public Policy, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) discussed Russian interference in U.S. elections, cybersecurity and AI, and his beloved car, a VW Thing. Deondra Rose, assistant professor of public policy and political science, interviewed him for the Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture.
Burr is the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees 17 federal national security agencies. The committee has been conducting its own investigation into Russian’s actions to influence the 2016 election, in parallel to the investigation led by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Although the Senate committee investigation is still underway, Burr reiterated that its findings so far mirror Mueller’s: Russia did interfere with the 2016 election, and there is no evidence, to date, of any collusion by the Trump campaign. He also said they have connected the interference to “oligarchs” but have not found direct evidence of ties to the Kremlin or Putin.
The Russians manipulated social media in an effort to aggravate existing social tensions and create chaos in the country during the period leading up to the election, Burr said.
He pointed to an example where Russian trolls set up a rallies for Black Lives Matter and a white supremacy group at the same time and location, bringing the two groups into conflict. Russia is amplifying existing tensions in the U.S. until “they become almost volcanic,” he said.
Russia’s meddling is based on “a 1960s Soviet mentality, that if it’s bad for America, it’s good for them,” he said.
To prevent further interference in 2018 and 2020, “We collaborated with Facebook and Twitter in 2018,” Burr said, showing the companies evidence of how Russia used their platforms. The companies took steps, such as shutting down sites, to counter that.
During the Q&A period, Burr was asked about the Brexit battle: “Do you believe Russians were involved in seeking to pit the Brits against each other?”
He answered simply, “Yes, sir.”
Cybersecurity is the top U.S. security concern now and for the near future, he said.
To “limit our risk” for espionage, intellectual property theft and other cyber threats, Burr supports limiting the number of visas for Chinese citizens to study in America. He said university presidents will be invited to a four-hour intelligence briefing at which they will see examples that demonstrate why such action is advisable.
“The challenge is technology is a wonderful tool… but the fact is it makes us vulnerable to anyone who wants to exploit the portals that exist in that communications network,” he said.
The interconnectedness of everything from cars to refrigerators through smart chips creates a great vulnerability that is difficult for government to address directly, Burr said. Rather than mandate that consumer products be designed to protect Americans from cyber threats, Burr said the government could write security standards into government contracts. This might spur companies to include the same security in all their products.
Regarding cuts to the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and other science programs in President Trump’s proposed budget, Burr said, “Don’t worry, Congress pays no attention to the President’s budget.” Congress has rejected Trump’s suggested science cuts for the last two years.
On the issue of gun violence in the U.S., Burr supports the administration’s recent bans on bump stocks.
Burr added that easy access to guns is not the main problem; rather it is “our inability to deal with people with mental health issues and habitual criminals.” He did see problems with plastic guns produced by 3-D printers, especially for aviation. From a security standpoint, he said, “I would like everything to be detectable, but that’s not how the Second Amendment is written,” he said.
Burr did vote to support Trump’s recent executive action to declare a national emergency at the border and divert money for the border wall. The directive is legal and constitutional, he said. Burr agrees there is a crisis at the border, in terms of “diseases coming in that we’ve eliminated in the U.S.” and detention capacity.
“It’s bigger than anything I’ve seen in the 25 years that I’ve served,” he said. However, a wall would not address what most Americans want, he added, which is immigration reform.
On public service
On being a public servant, Burr said he always wants to know how a policy will affect people.
“It’s impossible to be passionate about something if you don’t know how it affects somebody,” he said. He said he was proud of his work on the ABLE Act, which allows parents to create 529 accounts to care for their disabled children.
To encourage young people to consider public service, Burr said, “We have to be better examples.” He told about coming home from D.C. and calling his son to go for dinner. His son, who was 24 at the time, couldn’t go because he had a Habitat for Humanity meeting.
Professor Rose asked if, when he retires, Burr will leave Washington driving his 1974 VW Thing. The convertible, a local legend in DC, has been in the garage for the winter but will be coming out soon, he said.
“I would rather be heckled than ignored,” he said.