Jan 11, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden taps veteran career diplomat William Burns to lead CIA

William Burns.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden will nominate William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a career diplomat for over 30 years, to serve as director of the CIA, the transition confirmed Monday.

Why. it matters: If confirmed, Burns would be the first career diplomat to lead the agency. Burns served the State Department in a number of posts around the world from the Reagan to the Obama administrations.

  • "The choice of Burns will disappoint those who wanted a career intelligence officer to succeed Gina Haspel, the current director," writes the Washington Post's David Ignatius.
  • "What’s likely to have appealed to Biden, in addition to his personal comfort level with Burns, is his reputation as a nonpartisan figure who served in hard places — Russia and the Middle East — and over the years developed close relationships with the countries that are the CIA’s key liaison partners."

Background: Burns, who Ignatius writes "is widely viewed as the best Foreign Service officer of his generation," served in a number of State Department roles from 1982 until 2014, including an ambassadorship to Russia from 2005 to 2008. He was deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.

  • Burns was involved in secret backchannel talks with Iran that culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal, which Biden will attempt to revive after he takes office.
  • He also has experience dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has grown more aggressive in his foreign policy over the last decade, and told Axios in November: "We’re going to be operating within a pretty narrow band of possibilities in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia — from the sharply competitive to the pretty nastily adversarial."

The big picture: At an Axios event in September, Burns said the U.S. should carve out a new role for itself on the global stage — neither isolationist nor swaggering superpower.

  • "Recognizing and deepening that connection between foreign policy and domestic renewal, I think, is going to be the single deepest challenge for several administrations to come," Burns said.

What they're saying: "Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure," Biden said in a statement.

  • "He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect."
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