Restoring its Role:

Priorities for the CIA under William Burns
Restoring its Role:
July 7, 2021

As part of the confirmation process for members of President Joe Biden’s administration, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing for veteran US diplomat William Burns, nominated to serve as CIA Director. The context and highlights of the hearing can be summed up as follows:

Profile of William Burns

William Burns’s experience and main emphases can be summed up as follows:

1- Biden’s efforts to draw on those with extensive skills and experience: William Burns has extensive diplomatic and political experience. He previously served as a diplomat under five Democratic and Republican administrations over more than 33 years. He also held a number of positions in the State Department, including: Special Assistant to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright; Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the US Embassy in Moscow; Executive Secretary of the State Department; Acting Director and Principal Deputy Director of the State Department’s policy planning staff; and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

Perhaps the most notable point in Burns’s diplomatic history is his work as US Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, as well as Ambassador to Russia from 2005-2008. He also served as US Deputy Secretary of State from 2011 until his retirement in 2014.

2- Emphasis on using diplomacy in intelligence work: The US President’s appointment of veteran US diplomat William Burns comes as part of Biden’s ongoing affirmation that US diplomacy is back. The President previously indicated as much, stressing the need to adhere to diplomacy and criticizing the previous administration, which ignored this and damaged US alliances and its reputation in the world.

In this context, Biden’s nomination of a long-time US diplomat to take over as CIA director can be understood, despite Burns’s limited intelligence experience. This, perhaps, is what has led some to criticize Biden’s decision as a repeat of Trump’s mistake when he appointed Mike Pompeo, who has an intelligence background, to head the State Department. But President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris believe that Burns, with his lengthy experience, is capable of ensuring US national security.

3- Opposition to the policy of maximum pressure on Tehran: Burns led secret negotiations with Iran in 2013, and was instrumental in reaching the Iran nuclear deal. Some accuse him of providing too many incentives for Tehran to accept the 2015 nuclear deal, which former President Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018. Burns’s nomination, then, could present some indications as to the future direction of the Biden administration towards the Iranian nuclear issue.

Notably, Burns has previously questioned the feasibility of US sanctions on Iran, commenting on the maximum pressure strategy followed by former President Trump. Burns held that sanctions would not lead to major changes, nor would they lead the regime to raise the white flag of surrender, despite their negative impact.

4- Burns makes use of his extensive experience in Middle Eastern and Russian affairs: Burns has lengthy experience in Middle Eastern and Russian affairs. This is perhaps due to two factors: One, his great and early interest in the Middle East—in 1984, when he was just 28 years old, he published his book Economic Aid and the American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955-1981. Two, his long years as the country’s ambassador to Russia and Jordan. In this context, Burns is fluent in Arabic, Russian, and French, in addition to English. 

5- Supporting reliance on negotiation mechanisms to resolve crises: Burns is a proponent of negotiation to solve crises. He is deeply interested in issues of peace and conflict resolution, and still heads the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the oldest international affairs think tank in the US. Perhaps this is consistent with his background as a scholar of law and international relations, as well as his long and deep experience in diplomacy. Burns reached the highest rank in the US diplomatic service, “career ambassador.” In this context, Burns was awarded the Robert C. Frasure Memorial Award for Conflict Resolution and Peacemaking. In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine named him “Diplomat of the Year.”

Burns’s plan for the CIA

From observing Burns’s overall leanings and opinions, as well as the answers he gave during the Senate hearing, the priorities of the CIA in the coming period are as follows:

1- The need to pay attention to the technological revolution and artificial intelligence: Burns believes the technological revolution and rapid advancements in the field of artificial intelligence will be of great importance in the coming stage, especially given growing competition with China. He holds that the CIA will seek to develop its capacities in this area to preserve its progress in it, as well as seeking to understand the great development achieved by competitors.

2- Considering China the greatest geopolitical competitor to the US: Burns believes that competition with China will be essential to US national security in the coming decades. China continues to expand internationally and is trying to build influence within the US. In addition to this is its ongoing pattern of intellectual property theft, repressing the Chinese people, and threatening its neighbors, as he put it.

Burns said that Chinese leadership is the biggest geopolitical test for the US and requires a clear, long-term strategy agreed upon by both the Democratic and Republican parties. He noted that the CIA would continue to provide personnel specialized in Chinese affairs and the agency would strengthen its different capabilities to deal with the Chinese threat. Notably, Burns has previously been of the opinion that the US cannot contain China, because it is fully integrated in the global economy, noting that efforts should focus on the possibility of cooperation and making alliances with countries worried about China’s rise.

3- Increased cooperation with other intelligence services and agencies: Burns said he would focus, in his leadership of the CIA, on partnership and increased coordination with other intelligence services. This perhaps aligns with Burns’s continued calls to reshape alliances and give greater importance to diplomacy. He also indicated that he would work in cooperation with Avril Haines, Director of the Office of National Intelligence, to ensure that the CIA’s efforts are consistent with Haines’s vision of integrating the intelligence community.

4- Restructuring the roles of the intelligence services at the international level: Burns held the view that terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Russia and Iran’s aggressive behavior, and North Korea’s provocations represent the most important traditional challenges in the world today. He considered climate change, health security, and cyber threats to be the most important non-traditional threats and challenges in the world today.

5- Non-politicization of the CIA’s work: Responding to how to restructure the work of the CIA, Burns said there should be a focus on gathering confidential information, working to integrate information-gatherers with analysts to provide more advantages in addressing and examining difficult issues. In addition to taking advantage of technological advances, he stressed that the agency’s work should not be politicized but be kept away from politics. Its reports should be objective in order to enhance its credibility, he said. Notably, Burns reportedly stressed his concern in the past that former President Trump followed personal relationships in resolving foreign policy issues.


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CIA
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