Elections

The surprising ways in which NC Senate candidates agree on national security

FILE – U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., left, and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross during a live televised Senate debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Oct. 13, 2016. During the debate, both candidates said they’d consider using U.S. military ground troops in Syria to fight terrorism, and both favor safe zones there to alleviate the nation’s humanitarian crisis stemming from the ongoing conflict.
FILE – U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., left, and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross during a live televised Senate debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Oct. 13, 2016. During the debate, both candidates said they’d consider using U.S. military ground troops in Syria to fight terrorism, and both favor safe zones there to alleviate the nation’s humanitarian crisis stemming from the ongoing conflict. AP

North Carolina’s contenders for the U.S. Senate both want to use safe zones to protect civilians in Syria and want to keep open the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, preventing prisoners from being transferred.

Richard Burr and Deborah Ross also say they’d support Congress declaring war on the Islamic State terrorist group and would support military operations currently on the ground in the Middle East in training and advisory roles for allied troops.

The two share common ground even as their political backgrounds seem to naturally clash.

Burr is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, privy to classified information from the highest echelons of the U.S. national security apparatus. In his tenure on the panel, he’s pushed for expanded FBI authority to investigate terror suspects by obtaining some internet browsing history and email data without a warrant – and has defended his decision to not make public a report about CIA interrogation methods.

He voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act, which allows for secret wiretapping of terror suspects, and put in place tougher penalties for those convicted of mass violence.

Ross, meanwhile, spent eight years with the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the country’s best-known civil rights organizations, and one that has criticized Burr for sealing the CIA torture report and has opposed many tenets of the Patriot Act. Ross wrote a memo in 2001 warning about the inaugural Patriot Act’s potential imposition on civil liberties.

For months, public opinion polling has shown Burr and Ross in a tight race with Burr just a few points ahead.

The race has been heavily influenced this year by presidential campaign politics. Yet both Burr and Ross have staked out some national security policy positions that deviate from their parties’ standard-bearers.

For example, Burr doubts Russia could be an effective counterterrorism partner. Republican nominee Donald Trump, on the other hand, regularly praises Russian President Vladimir Putin and has called Russia’s involvement in Syria a good thing.

Only a fool would continue to think you can reach a cease-fire on the Syrian side with Bashar al Assad, with the Russians (as partners).

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

For Ross’ part, she supports U.S. troops aiding allied forces in Syria. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton says she won’t consider putting combat troops in Iraq and Syria.

And Ross opposes Clinton’s and President Barack Obama’s plan to close the Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison in Cuba.

These policy differences matter, as both Ross’ and Burr’s campaigns depict their opponents as rubber stamps for their respective parties.

Ross’ campaign has tried to use Burr’s support of Trump against him, citing the growing number of national security experts who claim Trump’s political temperament is dangerous. Recently, Burr was named an adviser for the Trump campaign. But he told McClatchy in an interview last week that he’s yet to attend any of Trump’s national security advisory council meetings.

And unlike Trump, who has said Russia could be an effective partner in defeating Islamic State terrorism, Burr says he’s skeptical.

“I’m certainly not going to rule that out. But if you gauge it based upon their willingness and their actions to date, only a fool would continue to think you can reach a cease-fire on the Syrian side with Bashar al Assad, with the Russians” as partners, Burr said in last week’s interview.

Burr favors no-fly zones over Syria as a way to reduce fighting and civilian deaths. The U.S. should use its air power to “tell the Russians and the Syrians, ‘Fly anywhere near here and we’ll shoot you out of the air,’ ” Burr said during a televised debate earlier this month.

On the campaign trail, Burr has leaned heavily on his experience as the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Although he partially differs with Trump on his Russia outlook, Burr sides with the nominee on the possibility that U.S. intelligence officials have prematurely blamed the Russian government for recent cyberattacks.

“I stand behind what the intelligence community has said, but there is additional investigation that has to take place before there is certainty on who was involved and to what degree,” Burr said.

Ross has criticized Burr for backing Trump, saying Trump has encouraged Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election by suggesting hackers obtain emails Clinton stored on a private server while she was secretary of state.

In turn, Burr’s campaign has hit Ross for campaigning with Clinton and supporting what Burr calls President Barack Obama’s failed policies, including the Affordable Care Act and the multinational deal with Iran to reduce nuclear weapon capabilities. Ross also came under fire last week for holding a campaign fundraiser with a Winston-Salem attorney, Robert Elliot, who has represented terror suspects and worked for their release from Guantanamo.

I don’t support bringing dangerous terrorists to American soil and I don’t support transferring these detainees overseas.

Deborah Ross, Democrat running for U.S. Senate

Ross’ campaign did not make Ross available for an interview. In an email statement, Ross said, “Guantanamo Bay represents a very dark chapter for our country,” referencing past abuse and torture of prisoners there.

“However,” she said, “I don’t support bringing dangerous terrorists to American soil, and I don’t support transferring these detainees overseas when we can’t guarantee that they won’t rejoin the battlefield.”

Ross called Burr’s attack on her fundraiser “just ridiculous.”

It’s not the only time Burr’s campaign has attempted to paint Ross as weak on national security issues. Burr and various national Republican fundraising groups – like the Senate Leadership Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Committee – have attacked Ross’ time at the North Carolina ACLU.

One such jab stems from a 2001 ACLU newsletter Ross contributed to following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ross’ memo raised concerns about the Patriot Act giving federal intelligence agencies increased surveillance authority.

Congress passed the law hastily and failed to “strike a crucial balance between safety and liberty,” Ross wrote.

“The new federal law will unleash the intelligence agencies which are all the more dangerous given the new technological tools at the government’s disposal,” her memo says.

Ross warned that broad wiretapping, spying, and “covert searches” and monitoring of U.S. citizens under the Patriot Act would erode civil liberties. Such authorities have since been reduced under a bipartisan rewrite of federal law, passed by Congress last year.

Ross’ campaign this week refused to explain the 2001 memo. When asked about the criticism, Ross said in a statement: “Attacks like these are exactly what is wrong with politics. Of course, there is nothing more important to me than keeping the American people safe.”

She then criticized Burr’s 2013 vote to temporarily shut down some federal government operations when Congress deadlocked on budget decisions.

“I certainly wouldn’t have supported shutting down the government, which forced 70 percent of our intelligence community off the job,” Ross said.

In 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the government shutdown had resulted in an estimated 70 percent of intelligence community employees being told to stay home from work. Military personnel and those workers directly involved in active cases of imminent threats were spared from furloughs.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews

Views on national security issues

Refugees

Burr supports temporarily banning refugees who come from Syria, Iraq and other countries under Islamic State control. The current screening process, he has said, cannot adequately identify whether some refugees pose a national security threat. Burr has also raised concerns about terrorists potentially exploiting the U.S. travel visa waiver program, which allows 90-day stays for Europeans without applying for visas.

Ross says she opposes a ban or temporary suspension on refugees. The screening process, though, she says, needs improvement. Federal authorities, Ross says, should ramp up vetting of refugees, temporary visitors, immigrants and all people entering the U.S. She has criticized Republican efforts to impose a ban specifically on Muslim refugees.

Iran nuclear deal

Ross supports the agreement among the U.S., Iran and five other countries.

“The success of the Iran nuclear deal depends on the full and rigorous enforcement of the inspections regime and use of the full range of penalties for noncompliance,” she said. “Nothing in the deal prevents the use of force should the United States need to take action.”

Burr is opposed, saying the deal doesn’t go far enough to reduce Iran’s nuclear abilities. The agreement, he says, reduced Iran’s uranium stockpile but allows advanced-technology centrifuges to rebuild supplies.

“Not only did we give them the green light to do it, we gave them the money,” Burr said, referencing the lines of credit and sanctions relief granted to Iran in the agreement.

Declaring war on ISIS

Burr supports a new authorization for use of military force but says Obama has failed to develop a strategy to fight Islamic State terrorism.

“If that were the intent of the president, to go to war with them, then I would support an authorization,” Burr says.

Ross also supports declaring war on the Islamic State and says Burr and other Republicans haven’t supported Obama’s strategy.

“I’ll work with people on both sides of the aisle to defeat ISIS, and that starts with taking them out where they are,” Ross says.

Drones

Ross says she supports using drone warfare and that the technology “allows the United States to take down threats to our security, including known terrorists, and collect necessary intelligence without putting our armed services in harm’s way.” She says precautions and oversight are needed to prevent civilians from being killed during drone strikes.

Burr also supports the military use of drones. He and other Republican leaders in Congress have even defended the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes to target terrorists though some civilians have been killed in the process.

Syrian safe zones

Both Burr and Ross support establishing “safe zones” in Syria to aid civilians caught up in the conflict and to curtail the amount of refugees fleeing Islamic State strongholds in the region.

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