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Photo: Ben Hider via Getty Images

President-elect Biden's selection of William Burns, a retired top diplomat, as his nominee for CIA director marks a potential pivot point for the agency.

Why it matters: Burns’ background is in statecraft, not subterfuge. His appointment may offer an unusual opportunity to better integrate the CIA’s intelligence-gathering, analysis and covert action capabilities with larger U.S. foreign policy aims.

What they’re saying: The pick “means [Biden] intends for American intelligence to serve American diplomacy in a way unseen since the Dulles brothers led those forces in the 1950s. That’s an urgent and monumental mission,” writes Tim Weiner.

Catch up quick: Burns, who currently heads the Carnegie Endowment, was something of a surprise pick.

  • Insiders had believed front-runners for the job included former CIA deputy director David Cohen and former senior CIA official Darrell Blocker.
  • Another well-known CIA hand, former acting director Michael Morell, earlier asked to be removed from consideration for the job after some Senate Democrats signaled their opposition to him over his past statements on torture.

Background: Burns, who retired in 2014 as deputy secretary of state, is a widely respected 33-year veteran of America’s diplomatic corps.

  • He was deeply involved in the Obama administration’s Iran strategy, including leading backchannel negotiations surrounding the Iran Deal.
  • He was also previously the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Of note: Although some former CIA heads, like Richard Helms and George H.W. Bush, were later appointed to diplomatic posts, Burns would be the first career diplomat to ascend to the top CIA post.

Yes, but: Burns’ diplomatic background doesn’t necessarily mean he will eschew the harder-edged aspects of spy work. After all, under the Obama administration, the CIA undertook a concerted covert action campaign to degrade Iran’s nuclear program while also pushing for a negotiated suspension of Tehran’s activities.

Go deeper

Jan 20, 2021 - World

Iran lays out "road map" for nuclear talks with Biden

Khamenei earlier this month. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Iran has been accumulating bargaining chips and laying out its strategy for engagement with Joe Biden, who arrives in office promising to return the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance.

Why it matters: Recent statements from Iran's leaders indicate that they're willing to strike such a deal. But the sides differ over who will have to make the first move, and when.

Updated 10 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court rejects Trump's attempt to shield documents from Jan. 6 committee

Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

The Supreme Court rejected on Wednesday night a bid by former President Trump to block the release of documents and records from his administration to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Why it matters: Trump asked the Supreme Court to step in and block the release of the documents last month after a panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously denied his attempt to prevent the committee from obtaining the materials.

19 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Democrats join Biden to pivot Build Back Better strategy

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A growing number of Senate Democrats are urging their colleagues to begin paring back the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better agenda to salvage what they can, abandoning hopes of the transformational to achieve the possible.

Why it matters: Democrats are desperate to notch a win. President Biden's popularity is sagging in the polls, the pandemic is raging and the party's record of passing crucial legislation has been muddled. Biden himself conceded during his news conference Wednesday that passing the parts was more likely than getting the whole.