President-elect Joe Biden has selected William Burns as his candidate to lead the CIA. If this were confirmed, Burns would be the first professional diplomat to head the country's top intelligence agency.
Amid pressure from the Democratic Party's progressive flank not to vote for a candidate for the agency's controversial drone and torture programs, Biden's election signals an appetite to break with darker aspects of the CIA's recent history.
“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage who keeps our people and our country safe and secure. He shares my deep conviction that intelligence agencies must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence workers who serve our nation deserve our gratitude and respect, ”Biden said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
Burns served 33 years in the U.S. External Action Service and retired as Assistant Secretary of State in 2014. He was the second professional diplomat in history to hold this position. (When he retired in 2014, Burns gave advice to his fellow diplomats in one of 10 articles Foreign policy.) Burns was fluent in Arabic, Russian and French and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Moscow and Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs during George W. Bush's first term. He is currently President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration and current ABC News analyst, said Burns has "an in-depth knowledge of some of the most critical national security issues we face" and plays an important role Role in the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, the Obama administration's efforts for peace in the Middle East, and the elimination of the Libyan weapons program. "His selection shows how important the new administration sees the role of the CIA in the nation's overall national security efforts."
Although Burns doesn't get into the CIA job with a background in intelligence, former officials said he worked well with the agency during his career in the State Department and expects to be an effective lawyer for the agency in the Biden administration after four years be from attacks on spy agencies by President Donald Trump.
"An inspired choice," said Douglas London, who most recently served as head of the CIA counter-terrorism in South and Southwest Asia Foreign policy in a text message on Monday. “An outsider to the CIA and not. He worked well with us on a number of sensitive programs. Well respected, inclusive, unpretentious. Not an intelligence officer, but an accomplished customer who works effectively on the Washington scene. "
Before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA director was also in charge of US intelligence. Since the 2005 role focused solely on the CIA, it was led by a mix of political officials and intelligence officials. While a practitioner can better understand the basics of CIA operations and the way intelligence analysis is conducted, an outsider can bring in a new perspective.
"Amb. Burns understands the information, its values and risks well, ”said London. “He needs some insiders that he can trust, who are insiders. know the truth and where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I hope he picks the right ones and doesn't be fooled by some of the old-timers of the existing ruling elite of the CIA. "But London added that Burns is a 'smart guy' and he expects the director-designate to be smart enough to see through the wrong perspectives.
During his tenure, Trump has repeatedly tried to politicize and defame the work of the US intelligence service. The current director Gina Haspel is said to have fallen out of favor with Trump because she refused to release secret services that could have helped him politically. One of Burns' first challenges as director will be to build morale in the agency and restore public confidence in the CIA's position as an impartial intelligence provider.
Burns will lead the agency at a time when the international challenges of old enemies like Russia, Iran and North Korea are rapidly evolving and new challenges are emerging from an increasingly militant China and the instability caused by pandemic diseases and climate change.
Burns are not unknown in Beijing either, which is likely to be a focus of Biden's foreign policy. During his tenure as assistant secretary of state, Burns also deliberated with the Chinese State Department over tense debates over cyber espionage that eventually led to indictments by the US Department of Justice. "The sharing has rarely been fun," Burns wrote in his 2019 memoir book, The Back Channel. “We spent seven hours in one section compiling and discussing specific information on cyber-enabled trade espionage by Chinese state agencies, including the (People's Liberation Army). The Chinese unceremoniously rejected our evidence. "
Burns became a vocal critic of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's dealings with the State Department, particularly in the wake of the impeachment saga that dragged State Department officials into the non-partisan hearings on Capitol Hill, arguing that Trump is undermining America's diplomatic corps and Pompeo did not enough to protect professional diplomats.
Pompeo in turn dismiss Burns' criticism as "crazy" accused him of "auditioning" for a senior post in the next Democratic government.
The position of CIA director is the last major position on Biden's national security team to be announced and will not be a position in the cabinet according to the cabinet Politico.
"Ambassador Bill Burns is welcomed by the CIA as one of its own. He has worked closely with generations of CIA analysts and operators and has earned their respect," said Larry Pfeiffer, who served as chief of staff to former CIA director Michael Hayden.
Burns knocked out several veteran intelligence professionals who were reportedly considered for the job. Former acting CIA director Michael Morell was widely considered a front runner, but withdrew from the exam in late December after being targeted by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for his previous comments on the agency's use was the torture. Tom Donilon, a national security adviser during the Obama administration, was an early favorite for the job but withdrew his name from deliberation.
"I've known Bill Burns for decades. I'm excited about him and the agency," Morell tweeted on Monday. "His mastery of the subjects, his deep respect for intelligence and his care for people will ensure this."