March 19, 2021
William J. Burns, a veteran diplomat, has vowed to rebuild morale at the C.I.A. after it deteriorated during the Trump administration and to intensify its spying on China.
William J. Burns, President Biden’s pick to lead the C.I.A., won bipartisan backing in the Senate. Pool photo by Tom Brenner
By Julian E. Barnes | The New York Times
WASHINGTON – The Senate approved William J. Burns on Thursday as director of the C.I.A., placing a veteran diplomat in charge of rebuilding morale that eroded during the Trump administration and focusing more intelligence resources on China.
Mr. Burns was approved by unanimous consent in the Senate without a roll-call vote.
A former ambassador in Russia and Jordan and a senior State Department official, Mr. Burns, 64, is the only career diplomat chosen to lead the C.I.A. (George Bush had served as United Nations ambassador and as the top diplomat in China before becoming the agency’s director.)
During Mr. Burns’s long career, he earned a reputation for careful analysis of national security and foreign policy problems, a talent that helped prompt President Biden to tap him for the C.I.A. post.
But strong ties to Mr. Biden and his team may well be Mr. Burns’s most important attribute. Former C.I.A. officials say other outsiders with little direct intelligence collection experience but close links to the White House, like Leon Panetta, were effective directors. A “close and trusting relationship with the president” helps a C.I.A. director win the president’s ear, said John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the agency.
Mr. Burns won unanimous, bipartisan backing from both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but a confirmation vote by the full Senate vote was delayed after Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, put an unrelated hold on the nomination. Mr. Cruz is seeking tougher sanctions on companies involved with a project to build a pipeline between Russia and Germany. He lifted that hold on Thursday after Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken issued a statement that said “any entity involved” in the pipeline project should stop that work or risk American sanctions.
Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Mr. Burns would lead the agency with “integrity and objectivity.”
“As our nation continues to face a growing and diverse set of threats around the globe, we must have experienced leaders in place who are ready to grapple with these risks head-on,” Mr. Warner said.
China dominated much of Mr. Burns’s confirmation hearing last month. He identified it as the most urgent foreign policy challenge for the agency and said he would invest in new technology to improve intelligence collection and language training for more C.I.A. officers.
Mr. Burns said that the Chinese government was adversarial and predatory but that it was important not to think about competition with China using the lens of the Cold War. While the clash with the Soviet Union was primarily ideological and security, competition with China, he said, involves technology and economic relationships.
China’s technological might and the authoritarian nature of the government is what makes intelligence collection so difficult. The C.I.A.’s network of informants there was crippled a decade ago, with many captured or killed. Since then, the United States has been highly reliant on British intelligence for insights into Beijing.
China’s ubiquitous surveillance, powerful artificial intelligence and biometric checks makes it difficult for the C.I.A. to send operatives into and around the country. Increased technological investments will be necessary if the C.I.A. hopes rebuild its ability to develop human sources inside the country, former officials said.
During the Obama administration, Mr. Burns was instrumental in beginning the secret diplomatic talks that eventually led to the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal.
From his new perch at the C.I.A., many friends and colleagues say they do not expect him to restart his secret diplomacy. Instead, he will focus on pushing the C.I.A. to deliver the best intelligence on Iran as the State Department looks at the possibility of new agreements with Tehran. And Mr. Burns’s own in-depth knowledge of Iran will be critical to advising Mr. Biden and the National Security Council.
Nevertheless, former intelligence officers also noted that the director needed diplomatic skills.
“Most people don’t realize there is a diplomatic element to being the C.I.A. director,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “We maintain relations with foreign intelligence services around the world, some friendly and some not so friendly.”
In many countries where spy services play an outsize role, like Pakistan, Egypt or Turkey, a C.I.A. director can do a lot to strengthen ties, said John Sawers, the former head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI-6.
“It’s not about conducting secret negotiations, but it is about using meetings at the highest level in those countries to conduct more than just narrow agency business,” he said.
While Mr. Burns described Russia as a declining power in his confirmation hearing, challenges from Moscow are likely to continue to push on to the nation’s intelligence agenda. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is reviewing intelligence matters related to Russia, including a broad hacking of government computer networks.
Mr. Burns has also pledged to re-examine the evidence gathered around what he called attacks on C.I.A. officers and diplomats around the world. Although he did not name any countries that he believes could be responsible, current and former intelligence officials have said Russia is the most likely culprit, a charge the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.
In his memoir, Mr. Burns recounted his meetings with, and analysis of, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Mr. Burns argued Mr. Putin had misread American politics and was driven, at least in part, by his grudges. “Putin has a remarkable capacity for storing up slights and grievances, and assembling them to fit his narrative of the West trying to keep Russia down,” Mr. Burns wrote.
Mr. Burns’s understanding of complex geopolitical issues will serve him well with a president more steeped in foreign policy issues than any other commander in chief since the elder Mr. Bush, according to former agency officials.
“If you have sophisticated customers, actually your game has to improve markedly,” said George Tenet, a former agency director who worked with Mr. Burns when he was ambassador to Jordan. “And I think that’s precisely the kind of environment where we function best, when the pressure on you every day is enormous.”
Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.