President-elect Joe Biden on Monday announced his intent to nominate former Ambassador William Burns as CIA director, tapping a veteran diplomat to take the helm of the nation’s premier intelligence agency.
Across his 33-year career in U.S. foreign policy, Burns has served in various senior capacities at the State Department under several administrations, most recently as former President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of State.
Burns also served as under secretary of State for political affairs from 2008-2011, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005-2008, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from 2001-2005, U.S. Ambassador to Jordan from 1998-2001, and as the department’s executive secretary from 1996-1998.
Burns retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 and is currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.
CIA director is perhaps the most high-profile post Biden had yet to fill after weeks of rolling out Cabinet picks and other administration appointments. The choice ultimately proved to be one of the toughest the president-elect faced as he put together his national security and foreign policy teams.
Burns now joins that built-out roster of Biden nominees, which includes Antony Blinken as secretary of State, Lloyd Austin as secretary of Defense, Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of Homeland Security, and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence nominee.
Burns, an early contender to become Biden’s secretary of State, beat out other top candidates for CIA director including David Cohen, an attorney who served as the agency’s deputy director from 2015-2017.
In a transition team statement, Biden described the CIA director-designate as “an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure.”
Burns “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect,” Biden said.
“Ambassador Burns will bring the knowledge, judgment, and perspective we need to prevent and confront threats before they can reach our shores,” he added. “The American people will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA Director.”
Mick Mulroy, a retired CIA officer and former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East under the Trump administration, also praised Burns as “an excellent choice” to lead the CIA.
“He had an exceptional career as a diplomat that gave him an in-depth knowledge of some of the most critical national security issues we face,” Mulroy said in a statement, specifically citing Burns’ “vital role in the Iran nuclear agreement, the Middle East peace process, and the elimination of Libya’s weapons program.”
“His selection shows how important the incoming Administration views the role of the CIA in the overall national security effort of the nation,” Mulroy said.
Burns’ selection means a career foreign service officer — not a career intelligence official such as current CIA Director Gina Haspel — will be assuming the top job at Langley, and it underscores Biden’s commitment to rebuilding international alliances that deteriorated under outgoing President Donald Trump’s administration.
When the new Congress takes up his nomination in the coming weeks, Burns is poised to skate past at least one contentious issue that has plagued confirmation hearings for past intelligence appointments: torture.
In 2016, Burns was one of more than 100 faith leaders, foreign policy minds, military officials and national security figures to co-sign a letter calling on “the people of the United States to reject torture absolutely” and “all public officials to explicitly disavow torture and to adhere to legal bans on torture.”
During her confirmation hearings in 2018, Haspel’s nomination as director drew new scrutiny of her role in running one of the agency’s “black site” prisons in Thailand — overseeing the harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects and later directing that tapes of those interrogations be destroyed on the orders of her supervisor.
Over the past four years, the CIA had found itself uncomfortably embroiled in domestic politics, accused by Trump and his allies of seeking to tar him as an agent of Moscow and representing a “deep state” bent on undermining his policies.
The agency’s work is likely to fly much further under the radar in Biden’s administration. The president-elect is unlikely to break publicly with his CIA director or attack him on social media, as Trump did repeatedly during his presidency.
The CIA remains the heavyweight among the country’s 17 spy agencies, and its employees often chafe at the somewhat amorphous oversight role of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is set to be run by Haines.
Two former CIA officers who spoke to POLITICO this week expressed concern that ODNI will become more empowered under Haines, resulting in the CIA losing some of its independence. Haines’ views were considered as Biden weighed options for CIA chief, according to two people close to the process.
As CIA director, Burns will face an emboldened Russia and an increasingly aggressive China, as well as transnational threats such as climate change and pandemics which Biden has placed at the center of his national security agenda.
Burns will also be expected to help rebuild morale at the agency, where analysts — particularly inside CIA’s Russia House — have seen their work politicized by the president. Fewer and fewer intelligence products concerning Russia were making their way to the White House by the fall of this year, as senior CIA officials sought to avoid angering the president.
Trump remains extraordinarily sensitive around the subject of Russian interference, and has repeatedly and publicly railed against the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in 2016 to bolster his candidacy.
But it is unlikely that Burns will need to tiptoe around certain intelligence findings with Biden. Unlike Trump — who was interested in intelligence only insofar as he could wield it as a political cudgel — the president-elect has long seen the intelligence community’s work as inherently valuable, Blinken said in an interview earlier this year.
“He said he felt so connected to what was going on around the world thanks to the PDB, and that losing that connection felt like a real void,” Blinken said, referring to the classified daily briefing provided daily to the president, vice president, and other senior officials.
“I think that is evidence of the basic value he placed on the work of the intelligence community, because the PDB is of course their most important product,” he added.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who served from 2013-2017 and is now one of Trump’s fiercest critics, cautioned that Biden was not simply a rubber stamp when it came to the intelligence community’s conclusions.
Brennan’s book outlines some disagreements he had with then-Vice President Biden on issues including the Osama bin Laden raid and the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
“I remember [former DNI] Jim Clapper and myself would be in NSC meetings in the Situation Room, and we knew we’d be the skunk at the party because we would be presenting intelligence that might be at odds with the prevailing view,” Brennan wrote.
“I was questioned on it, challenged on it, and rightly so,” he wrote. “But I never felt that they didn't want to hear it.”
Lara Seligman contributed to this report.