Report

Biden Taps Career Diplomat William Burns as CIA Director

The final big name for Biden’s national security team signals a break with the CIA’s dark past.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns speaks during an event about economic partnership with China at the State Department in Washington on July 11, 2013.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns speaks during an event about economic partnership with China at the State Department in Washington on July 11, 2013. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden has selected William Burns as his nominee to lead the CIA. If confirmed, Burns would become the first career diplomat to lead the country’s premier intelligence agency. 

Facing pressure from the progressive flank of the Democratic Party not to choose a nominee associated with the agency’s controversial drone and torture programs, Biden’s choice 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 keeping our people and our country safe and secure. He 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 in a statement accompanying the announcement. 

Burns spent 33 years in the U.S. foreign service, retiring in 2014 as deputy secretary of state, having become the second career diplomat in history to hold the position. (On retiring in 2014, Burns offered 10 pieces of advice for his fellow diplomats in an article published by Foreign Policy.) Fluent in Arabic, Russian, and French, Burns previously served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow, as well as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs during George W. Bush’s first term in office. He is currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during the Trump administration and a current ABC News analyst, said Burns boasts “in-depth knowledge of some of the most critical national security issues we face,” playing a vital role in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Obama administration’s efforts at Middle East peace, 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.”

Though Burns doesn’t come into the CIA job with a background in intelligence, former officials said he worked well with the agency during his career at the State Department and expect him to be an effective advocate for the agency in the Biden administration after four years of attacks on spy agencies by President Donald Trump. 

“An inspired choice,” Douglas London, who last served as the CIA’s chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia, told Foreign Policy in a text message on Monday. “An outsider to CIA and not. He’s worked well with us on any number of sensitive programs. Well respected, inclusive, unpretentious. Not an intelligence practitioner but a savvy customer who works the Washington scene effectively.”

Before the 9/11 attacks, the CIA director also led the U.S. intelligence community. But since the role became solely focused on the CIA in 2005, it has been led by a mix of political appointees and intelligence professionals. While a practitioner might better understand the nuts and bolts of CIA operations and how intelligence analysis is done, an outsider might bring a fresh perspective. 

“Amb. Burns understands intel well, its values and risks,” London said. “He needs some insiders he can trust who are insiders; know the truth and where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I hope he chooses the right ones and is not hoodwinked by some of the old hands from CIA’s existing ruling elite.” But London added that Burns is a “smart guy” and he expects the director-designate to be savvy enough to see through the wrong perspectives. 

During his term, Trump has repeatedly sought to politicize and malign the work of U.S. intelligence. Current Director Gina Haspel is reported to have fallen out of favor with Trump for refusing to declassify intelligence that could have aided him politically. One of Burns’s first challenges as director will be to boost morale in the agency and to restore public confidence in the CIA’s position as a nonpartisan provider of intelligence. 

Burns will take up the reins of the agency at a time of rapidly evolving international challenges from old foes such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea and new challenges posed by an increasingly combative China and the instability wrought by pandemic diseases and climate change. 

Burns is not an unfamiliar face in Beijing either, which is likely to be a focal point of Biden’s foreign policy. During his time as deputy secretary of state, Burns also dealt with China’s Foreign Ministry on tense debates over cyber-espionage that eventually led to U.S. Justice Department charges. “The exchanges were rarely fun,” Burns wrote in his 2019 memoir, The Back Channel. “We spent seven hours in one stretch laying out and debating specific information that we had about cyber-enabled commercial espionage by Chinese state organs, including the [People’s Liberation Army]. The Chinese summarily rejected our evidence.”

Burns became a vocal critic of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s handling of the State Department, particularly in the wake of the impeachment saga that dragged career State Department officials into the hyperpartisan hearings on Capitol Hill, arguing that Trump was hollowing out America’s diplomatic corps and Pompeo wasn’t doing enough to protect career diplomats.

Pompeo in turn dismissed Burns’s criticisms as “crazy” and accused him of “auditioning” for a senior post in the next Democratic administration. 

The position of CIA director is the last major position in Biden’s national security team to be announced and will not be a cabinet position, according to Politico

“Ambassador Bill Burns will be welcomed by CIA’s rank and file as one of their 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 beat out several veteran intelligence professionals who were reportedly under consideration for the job. Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell was widely thought to be the front-runner but withdrew himself from consideration in late December after coming under fire from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for his previous remarks on the agency’s use of torture. Tom Donilon, a national security advisor during the Obama administration, was an early favorite for the job but withdrew his name from consideration. 

“I’ve known Bill Burns for decades. I’m thrilled for him and for the Agency,” Morell tweeted on Monday. “His command of the issues, his deep respect for intelligence, and his care for people will ensure it.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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