President-elect Joe Biden has selected William Burns, a career State Department official who led the U.S. delegation in secret talks with Iran, to run the CIA.
In selecting Burns, 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 Biden led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Burns has also long worked with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for national security adviser, and has been influential in helped foster Sullivan’s career.
Biden’s choice sends a message that U.S. intelligence will not be influenced by politics.
In a statement early Monday, the president-elect said that Burns “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect.”
Burns’ experience is as a consumer of intelligence, not as a producer. CIA directors are expected to put aside their policy recommendations and focus on information and prediction. Still, former agency officials have asserted the most important quality in a director is not expertise in intelligence, but a relationship with the president, which Burns has.
During his presidency, President Donald Trump has undermined and dismissed intelligence officials and has called them “passive” and “naive” in their analysis of national security threats posed by Iran.
Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has been vocal in his belief that U.S. diplomacy has been damaged in the Trump administration.
Described as a “steady hand” and a “very effective firefighter,” by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Burns spent 32 years at the State Department, where he was the U.S. ambassador in Moscow and in Jordan and in high-level leadership positions in Washington.
Burns has been a trusted diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations. He has played a role in the agency’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 U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya. In 2002, Burns wrote a memo he titled the “Perfect Storm,” which highlighted the dangers of U.S. intervention in Iraq.
Burns retired from the State Department in 2014.
For a time, Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA, was considered the leading candidate for the top agency post. But some Democratic senators voiced public and private reservations. Senate liberals, including Ron Wyden of Oregon, opposed picking Morell, accusing him of defending torture. Morell’s representatives said Wyden had inaccurately portrayed his record and comments about the CIA interrogation program.
Earlier, Thomas 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 CIA, had also been considered.
A key question will be how Burns can work with Avril Haines, Biden’s choice to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Biden transition team has said Haines will be the senior intelligence official in the administration and does not intend to make the CIA director a formal member of the Cabinet. In past administrations, there have often been tension between the director of national intelligence and the CIA director.
Burns was considered a likely candidate to run the State Department in the incoming Biden administration. He could prove critical in helping Biden restart discussions with Tehran after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.