Biden Picks Longtime Diplomat William Burns to Head CIA

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President-elect Joe Biden Monday named Ambassador William J. Burns to be his CIA director.

Burns, 64, a longtime diplomat, is currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama.

The appointment comes as both Democrats and Republicans have raised concerns about the politicization of the U.S. intelligence apparatus and as many of America’s most important diplomatic relationships have come under strain from President Donald Trump’s “America first” foreign policy.

In a statement, Biden said Burns “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect.”

Burns has been highly critical of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. In a July 2020 essay, he argued that “’America First’ really means Trump first, America alone, and Americans on their own” and called instead for a “fundamental reinvention of America’s role in the world.”

The next administration, Burns wrote, would need to “reinvent U.S. alliances and partnerships and make some hard and overdue choices about America’s tools and terms of engagement around the world. And it’ll have to act with the discipline that so often eluded the U.S. during its lazy post–Cold War dominance.”

Burns has spoken about the role intelligence plays in supporting U.S. foreign policy.

“You never get very far in diplomacy without the leverage that comes with the American military, the American intelligence community,” Burns said in a 2019 podcast with former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell. “What diplomats do is a form of reconnaissance. It’s trying to understand foreign landscapes. Understanding doesn’t mean that you have to accept or indulge the perspectives of other governments or other leaders, but you have to understand them.”

Burns played a key role in the Obama administration’s secret outreach to Iran, which culminated in the 2015 nuclear agreement, together with Biden’s choice for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan.

Burns joined the State Department in 1982. He served as ambassador to Russia during President George W. Bush’s tenure and has also served as ambassador to Jordan. Burns later served as under secretary of state for political affairs, before being appointed deputy secretary of state in 2011.

During his time at the State Department, Burns won acclaim for his research and cable-writing abilities after Wikileaks released thousands of State Department dispatches in 2010. In one dispatch, Burns described a wedding in Chechnya attended by the region’s president who danced “with his gold-plated automatic stuck down the back of his jeans.”

When Burns retired from the State Department in 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry described him as “a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen,” two legendary U.S. diplomats during the Cold War. Burns was widely tipped as a possible Secretary of State during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, as well as a potential choice for Biden’s top diplomat.

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