WASHINGTON – William Burns, a well-known figure in diplomatic circles around the world, is President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to lead the CIA, a selection likely to be embraced by the rank and file at the nation’s premier spy agency.
A former ambassador to Russia and Jordan, Burns, 64, had a 33-year career at the State Department under both Republican and Democratic presidents. He rose through the ranks of the diplomatic corps to become deputy secretary of state before retiring in 2014 to run the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.
If confirmed, he would succeed Gina Haspel, the first female CIA director, who guided the agency under President Donald Trump. Trump expressed skepticism about intelligence and frequently disparaged the assessments of U.S. spy agencies, especially about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to help his campaign.
Trump also fired several career intelligence professionals in favor of loyalists, including some with little to no experience in the field.
Burns has never been an American intelligence officer, but he has worked with many abroad.
“I developed enormous respect for my colleagues in the CIA,” Burns said in an online video statement Monday with Biden. “I served with them in hard places around the world. I saw firsthand the courage and professionalism that they displayed and the sacrifices that their families made.”
Burns called intelligence the first line of defense for the country and the basis for making sound policy decisions. He also said he would deliver the intelligence to Biden and policymakers “without a hint of partisanship.”
Burns is perhaps an unconventional choice for the CIA job that many thought would go to a career intelligence officer.
However, he is also deeply experienced in the kind of cloak-and-dagger secret contacts that is a hallmark of the agency and won plaudits for his analysis and reporting abilities while he served as an American diplomat overseas. Burns was the author of some of the most insightful State Department cables that were published by Wikileaks in 2010 and is widely respected throughout the national security community.
Michael Morell, a career intelligence officer and former acting director of the CIA whose name was floated to hold the top position under Biden, praised the pick, an indication that Burns likely will be embraced by the spy agency’s rank and file.
“I’ve known Bill Burns for decades. ... His command of the issues, his deep respect for intelligence, and his care for people will ensure it,” Morell tweeted.
Norman Roule, a 34-year veteran of the CIA and an expert on Iran in the intelligence community, concurred: “Bill Burns is deeply respected for his integrity, honesty, & commitment to the workforce," Roule tweeted. "He will arrive w great respect for the IC & its work.”
Amid tumult in the State Department after Trump took office in 2017, Burns held his tongue until last year when he began writing highly critical pieces of the Trump administration's policies in Foreign Affairs and other publications. Burns has been a staunch advocate of rebuilding and restructuring the foreign service, positions Biden has aligned himself with.
Biden said in a statement Monday that Burns shares his “profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical.”
“Ambassador Burns will bring the knowledge, judgment and perspective we need to prevent and confront threats before they can reach our shores,” Biden said. "The American people will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA director.”
Burns was said to have been a candidate to be Biden's secretary of state. Biden chose Anthony Blinken instead.
He joined the foreign service in 1982 and before being named ambassador to Russia in 2005, served as a top aide to former Secretaries of State William Christopher and Madeleine Albright as well as director of the State Department’s policy planning office.
He has received three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and the highest civilian honors from the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. He has doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar.
In his 2019 book “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal,” Burns called for a revamp of American diplomacy, while recalling his days in the field, including helping to spearhead the early stages of the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran in 2013.
The CIA post is not expected to be a Cabinet-level post under Biden. The CIA stopped being a Cabinet-level position during the George W. Bush administration. That’s because in 2005, after 9/11, the Office of the National Intelligence Director was created to oversee and improve cooperation among all the agencies within the U.S. intelligence community. The director of national intelligence, not the CIA director, was in the Cabinet.
Trump elevated the CIA director post back up to a Cabinet-level position, and both Haspel and National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe sit in his Cabinet.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.