William Burns Is Biden’s Choice for C.I.A. Director

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden has selected William J. Burns, a career State Department official who led the U.S. delegation in secret talks with Iran, to run the C.I.A.

In selecting Mr. Burns, Mr. Biden is turning to an experienced diplomat with whom he has a long relationship. The two men have worked together on various foreign policy issues, not just during the Obama administration, but also while Mr. Biden led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Biden said Mr. Burns’ first task would be to make sure that intelligence collection and analysis was not influenced by politics after years of President Trump’s attacks on the intelligence agencies.

In a statement early Monday, the president-elect said that Mr. Burns, 64, “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect.”

Mr. Biden has told his national security advisers that he wants to ensure that the C.I.A. is collecting, analyzing and providing intelligence without political spin, former officials said. Mr. Burns has a reputation for nonpartisanship and has held key diplomatic posts in both Democratic and Republican administrations, experience that should make his confirmation by the Senate relatively straightforward.

Under Mr. Trump there have long been allegations that intelligence has been politicized. Mr. Trump’s directors of national intelligence have taken on a partisan edge that has enveloped all of the intelligence agencies in controversy. (Although the C.I.A. is nominally one of the intelligence agencies overseen by the director of national intelligence, the agency operates with a large degree of autonomy.)

A report by the ombudsman in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence found multiple instances of politicization while examining election interference in 2020. But current officials debate whether the politicization is only a problem with Mr. Trump’s appointees or goes deeper.

Some current and former officials said Gina Haspel, the current C.I.A. director and a career agency official, has done a good job defending the agency, and her stances has put her at odds with the White House over intelligence on Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Afghanistan, as well as on the declassification of documents.

Unlike Ms. Haspel, Mr. Burns’ experience is as a consumer of intelligence, not as a producer. C.I.A. directors are expected to put aside their policy recommendations and focus on information and prediction.

But former agency officials have asserted the most important quality in a director is not expertise in intelligence, but a relationship with the president, which Mr. Burns has.

During his time in office, President Trump has undermined and dismissed intelligence officials, calling them, for instance, “passive” and “naïve” in their analysis of national security threats posed by Iran.

The pick of Mr. Burns suggests that Mr. Biden is putting an emphasis on traditional national security threats. Mr. Burns has long experience with Iran and Russia.

He was instrumental in starting the secret talks with Tehran in the Obama administration, which ultimately resulted in the nuclear deal in which Iran agreed to give up its nuclear program in exchange for relief from punishing sanctions on its economy by six world powers, including the United States. Mr. Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, and Mr. Burns could prove critical in aiding the administration in restarting discussions with Tehran.

Mr. Burns sensed an opening to Iran in 2013, with the landslide election of Hassan Rouhani as president. He teamed up with Jake Sullivan, who will be Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, to meet with key Iranians to scope out the parameters of a possible deal. That mission was successful, though it took two more years to negotiate the deal.

The experience gave Mr. Burns a deep understanding of the Iranian nuclear program and put him in near-daily touch with the intelligence officials tracking it. While he did not conduct the negotiations himself, he was key to keeping the five other nations involved — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — and the European Union all pulling in the same direction in the negotiations.

Mr. Burns also served as ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, making him a keen observer of President Vladimir V. Putin. Russian interference in American elections has been one of the most important intelligence issues in recent years.

Members of Mr. Biden’s intelligence transition team have discussed the importance of expanding the intelligence community’s work on foreign interference, beyond election influence. Some members of Mr. Biden’s team also believe the government must do more to examine how foreign powers may be trying to provide support or influence extremist groups.

Former intelligence officials have told the Biden transition team that tracking foreign attempts to influence domestic white supremacist groups, as well as other extremist elements, should be a priority of all intelligence agencies. While the C.I.A. cannot track American groups, it can hunt for foreign operatives attempting to influence them from overseas.

Mr. Burns, currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has been vocal in his belief that American diplomacy has been damaged in the Trump administration.

He has the mind of the diplomat, seeking to figure out how to give adversaries some political breathing room to make an agreement. He had been was considered a likely candidate to run the State Department before Mr. Biden picked Antony J. Blinken, another close colleague of Mr. Burns.

He speaks and writes broadly — he published an autobiography that is considered by many to be a guidebook to post-Cold War diplomacy in the United States, and that will now be restudied around the world for insights into his thinking. He will probably have a higher public profile than Ms. Haspel, who has rarely spoken publicly and never gives interviews.

Described as a “steady hand” and “very effective firefighter” by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Mr. Burns spent 32 years at the State Department. In addition to his post in Moscow, he was the American ambassador in Jordan and held several high-level leadership positions in Washington.

Mr. Burns has also played a role in the State Department’s most prominent, and painful, moments over the past two decades.

In 2012, he accompanied the bodies of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on a C-17 flight from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to Washington after the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya.

In 2002, Mr. Burns wrote a memo that has become known as the “Perfect Storm” memo that highlighted the dangers of American intervention in Iraq.

Mr. Burns retired from the State Department in 2014.

For a time Michael J. Morell, a former deputy director of the agency, was considered the leading candidate for the C.I.A. post. But some Democratic senators voiced public and private reservations. Senate liberals, including Ron Wyden of Oregon, opposed Mr. Morell, a former deputy director of the agency, accusing him of defending torture. Mr. Morell’s representatives said Mr. Wyden had inaccurately portrayed his record and comments about the C.I.A. interrogation program. Earlier, Thomas E. Donilon, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, withdrew his name from consideration for the post. David Cohen, a former deputy director of the C.I.A., had also been considered.

A key question will be how Mr. Burns works with Avril D. Haines, Mr. Biden’s choice to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Biden transition team has said Ms. Haines will be the senior intelligence official in the administration. Although Mr. Burns will be a member of the National Security Council’s principals committee, Mr. Biden does not intend to make the C.I.A. director a formal member of the cabinet. In past administrations, there have often been tension between the director of national intelligence and the C.I.A. director.

David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*