Biden’s Pick for CIA Director Singles Out China as ‘Biggest Geopolitical Test’

Bill Burns, a veteran diplomat, will helm the spy agency in an era of renewed great-power competition.

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.

CIA Director-designate William Burns testifies during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 24.
CIA Director-designate William Burns testifies during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 24. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool/Getty Images

William Burns, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the CIA, sailed through his nomination hearing Wednesday, outlining his main priorities—especially China, new technologies, and looking after agency personnel. 

If confirmed, Burns, the first career diplomat tapped to head the spy agency, will take charge of the CIA as it pivots to address an era of renewed great-power competition when new technologies are challenging traditional modes of spycraft and after four years of politicization and demoralization under the Trump administration. A sign of that shifting focus: Counterterrorism, once a key CIA focus, got scant attention during the two-hour hearing.

Instead, Burns focused on new threats, saying that an “adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.” But his challenge won’t just come from Beijing. 

“Most of my white hair came from my service in Russia over the years,” said Burns, a 33-year foreign service veteran who served in the Middle East and as U.S. ambassador to Russia. “While Russia may be in many ways a declining power, it can be at least as disruptive under [Vladimir] Putin’s leadership as rising powers like China.”

Burns also addressed controversial issues like waterboarding—which he said constitutes torture—but said he shares the views of Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, that CIA officers involved in the program should not be penalized as they were acting under U.S. Justice Department guidelines and at the president’s direction at the time. He also vowed to make an “extraordinarily high priority” to get to the bottom of mysterious attacks on U.S. diplomats and CIA officers overseas, which a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said was likely caused by pulsed radio frequency energy. 

In his opening remarks, Burns outlined his four key areas of priority: China; new technologies; CIA personnel; and partnerships with congressional intelligence committees and allies. Burns said he would look to expand the CIA’s cadre of China specialists and linguists to meet the challenge but noted that there was scope to cooperate with Beijing on issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. 

Senators probed Burns about the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s work in China while he led the think tank. Later, Burns said that if he were president of a U.S. university, he would close down any Confucius Institutes, which have been widely criticized as tools of Chinese censorship and influence. 

Burns, who was a senior State Department official for the Middle East when the Iraq War began in 2003, also underscored his desire to speak truth to power. In his 2019 memoir, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, Burns said his “biggest professional regret” was not being more forceful in communicating his concerns about the decision to go to war in Iraq as the head of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs under then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

“What’s incumbent—whether you’re in a policymaking role, as I was then at the State Department, or in a senior intelligence role—is to be straightforward about your concerns. Because without that, policy choices suffer,” Burns said Wednesday. 

Since joining the State Department in 1982, Burns steadily climbed the ranks of the foreign service, becoming only the second serving career diplomat to be tapped as deputy secretary of state. He left that post in 2014 and became head of the Carnegie Endowment. 

Though he lacks a career background in intelligence like his predecessor, Gina Haspel, Burns has extensive experience with sensitive diplomatic initiatives and as a consumer of CIA intelligence. He was involved in secret negotiations with Libya, which began in 2001, over ending the country’s nuclear weapons program and in opening private back channels to Iran to lay the groundwork for the Iran nuclear deal under President Barack Obama more than a decade later. “It was their [CIA officers’] skills at collection and analysis that often gave me an edge as a negotiator,” he said.

Biden tapped Burns for the job over several other CIA veterans who were under consideration, including former acting CIA Director Michael Morell. His nomination was largely welcomed by former CIA officials and national security experts—he was introduced at the confirmation hearing by former CIA Director Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State James Baker—and is seen as part of the broader effort to put diplomacy at the core of U.S. foreign policy and to break with some of the darker episodes in the CIA’s recent history. 

“Bill Burns is the right person at the right time to lead the CIA,” Panetta said.

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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