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CIA nominee pledges to de-politicize intelligence briefings

William Burns promises to counter China's growing influence and fight cyber attacks, espionage

William Burns, the president's nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, testifies Wednesday at his Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing.
William Burns, the president's nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, testifies Wednesday at his Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Smooth sailing is expected in the Senate confirmation of President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the CIA after a Wednesday hearing in which William Burns, a well-respected longtime senior diplomat, pledged he would present non-politicized intelligence findings to the president, protect the safety and health of agency personnel, counter China’s influence, and fight cyber espionage operations.

Burns, who retired in 2014 from the State Department with the highest rank possible of career ambassador, equivalent to a four-star general, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that responding to an “adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.”

To support Biden’s goal of “out-competing” China, the CIA should devote more resources to growing and improving the capabilities of its China specialists, including their language skills, said Burns, who has held the State Department’s No. 2 and No. 3 positions of deputy secretary and undersecretary of State for political affairs, respectively.

If confirmed as CIA director, it will be Burns’ first intelligence position. But his backers say his years of experience as a senior diplomat, including periods spent as ambassador to Russia and Jordan — countries where U.S. embassies housed critical intelligence collection operations — have given him a deep understanding of the role that good and timely intelligence plays in guiding foreign policy-decisions.

“The CIA agents you had worked with over the years were incredibly confident that as a consumer of this information, you’d bring a lot to this job,” observed Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

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When he was president, Donald Trump repeatedly and publicly attacked the findings of the U.S. intelligence community, particularly when it came to matters relating to Russia. This reportedly caused some intelligence officials to change the way and what types of intelligence they provided to Trump in an attempt to avoid angering him.

Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said it would be critical for Burns to “reinforce the credo that — no matter the political pressure, no matter what — CIA’s officers will always do the right thing and speak truth to power” without fear of retribution.

From his experience as a senior State official relying on CIA intelligence to inform his policy making decisions, Burns said “what mattered most to me was that I get their honest judgement on issues, even when it might be inconvenient or unwelcome in some ways … what I learned, sometimes the hard way over my career, is unless you’re getting unvarnished intelligence without a hint of politics or policy agenda, it becomes impossible to have an effective policy process.”

The retired ambassador said his diplomatic background would play a large role in how he would approach his work as CIA director, particularly when it comes to regaining the confidence of U.S. allies and partners who felt alienated and slighted by Trump’s “America First” policies.

“America’s partnerships and alliances are what set our country apart from lonelier major powers like China and Russia,” said Burns, currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank. “For CIA, intelligence partnerships are an increasingly important means for amplifying our understanding and influence. Investing in those liaison relationships has never been more important. It’s a task for which my whole career has prepared me.”

[China likely to attack Taiwan within five years, panel told]

Even as he emphasized that China is the greatest geopolitical challenge facing the United States, Burns also said it was important to maintain a strong focus on threats emanating from Russia, such as the recent SolarWinds hack of multiple U.S. federal agencies and leading American companies.

“Most of my white hair came from my service in Russia over the years and in particular in dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” said Burns, who speaks Russian, Arabic and French. “What I’ve learned is that it’s always a mistake to underestimate Putin’s Russia, that while Russia may be in many ways a declining power, it can be at least as disruptive under Putin’s leadership as rising powers like China. We have to be quite cold-eyed in our view of how those threats can emerge.”

Burns said he would work with Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who he described as a “longtime friend and colleague,” to ensure the CIA’s work “fit seamlessly with her vision for integrating the intelligence community.”

He also talked about the importance of Congress’ oversight role of the CIA and pledged to cooperate with the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying “no partnership will be more important to me than the one I hope to build with all of you on this committee.”

“I certainly will be committed to trying to provide as much information as possible to the broader committee on sensitive operations and collection,” he said.

In response to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Burns said he would review the reasons why prior CIA leadership chose to restrict access to certain classified briefings to the so-called “Gang of Eight” congressional leaders. That group comprises the House speaker, House minority leader, Senate majority leader and Senate minority leader and the top Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence committees of the two chambers.

Burns is expected to be confirmed by a wide bipartisan margin in the Senate. Multiple committee members, including Republicans such as Blunt on Wednesday, said they would vote to confirm him. He has previously received Senate confirmation on five other occasions.

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