New Senate panel chairman overhauls intelligence hearings

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While change can be slow on Capitol Hill, the new Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is already overhauling how public hearings into some of the nation's most sensitive matters are handled.

Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina will begin this process Thursday with the committee's first public hearing, inviting the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicolas Rasmussen to testify on the current U.S. threat picture. Also known as the NCTC, the group was created after 9/11 to be the nation's hub for threat assessments.

Previous committee chairs relied on the highly anticipated "world wide threat hearing" once a year to bring together the U.S. government's most senior intelligence officials. It also was the only opportunity for the public to hear from the intelligence community's decision makers.

Burr, who served five terms in the House and is now in his second term in the Senate, plans to hold a public hearing quarterly with a major intelligence community newsmaker.

Burr spokeswoman Becca Watkins told Fox News, "The Chairman intends to hold regular open hearings during the 114th Congress that will focus on one agency from the intelligence community....Chairman Burr understands the need for the public to hear directly from our Intelligence Community on issues and threats of concern.”

Rasmussen made headlines Wednesday during his testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee when he said the intelligence community believes 20,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Syria and Iraq, with the majority joining ISIS.

In July Rasmussen's predecessor, Matt Olsen, told the Aspen Security Forum that the intelligence community believed there were 14,000. That means nearly 1,000 foreign fighters have continued to join ISIS, and other extremist groups, every month, despite the U.S.- led air campaign.

Fox News was also told that the senator was very focused on preserving the integrity of classified information, and would take "all necessary steps going forward to ensure that the lives of American personnel abroad won’t be compromised, especially for political purposes."