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Longtime Diplomat William Burns Is Biden's Pick To Lead CIA

Jan 11, 2021
Originally published on January 11, 2021 5:20 pm

Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate veteran diplomat William Burns to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Burns, 64, is a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan. As a career foreign service office, he worked under Democratic and Republican presidents. He was deputy secretary of state during the Obama years, but he left the State Department in 2014 to run the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

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' notable achievements include using back channels to launch international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. He left the government as the U.S. and other countries were working toward an agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was finalized less than a year after his retirement.

President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, while Biden says he favors returning to the agreement if Iran agrees to abide by limitations laid out in the document.

In 2019, Burns wrote a scathing critique of what he called the Trump administration's "diplomatic malpractice," saying it had badly mistreated Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine whose removal from her post became a central topic in the president's impeachment and Senate trial.

"I've never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging, to both the State Department as an institution and our international influence, as the one now underway," he wrote.

Burns told NPR in late 2019, "In my experience, what animates American foreign policy at our best has been a sense of enlightened self-interest — in other words, the view that our self-interest as a country, which we always are going to put first, is best served by making common cause."

Burns is now being positioned to replace Gina Haspel, the current CIA chief who rose from deputy director to the top job in 2018 when Mike Pompeo left the agency to become secretary of state. She is the first woman to head the CIA.

Haspel's promotion was popular among current and former CIA personnel. She saw Trump regularly, as part of the small group that delivered intelligence briefings to the president several days a week.

But support for Haspel, from the intelligence community as well as the White House, appeared to wane over time. Trump was frequently upset with the intelligence community's assessments of places such as Russia, Iran and North Korea if they didn't align with his own narrative.

This left Haspel and other national security officials in a difficult, if not impossible position. They could rarely, if ever, persuade Trump. And if they challenged the president, they were likely to be sidelined — replaced with less experienced officials whose main credential was loyalty to the president.

The plan to nominate Burns follows a pattern Biden has established with other choices for his national security team, which includes people who have worked closely with Biden when he was vice president. Several were in the No. 2 positions at their agencies during that period and are now being elevated to leadership roles after being out of government during Trump's tenure.

Avril Haines, who served as the CIA's deputy director under Obama from 2013-15, will be nominated as the director of national intelligence. Tony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state under Obama, is Biden's nominee for secretary of state. Jake Sullivan, who served as national security adviser to Vice President Biden — and worked with Burns on the Iran deal — is set to become national security adviser to a President Biden.

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Biden's pick to be defense secretary, worked closely with the vice president as a top commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East during the Obama administration.

As a result, Biden's national security team consists of seasoned professionals who are well known to one another, and they're already familiar faces in the agencies they are poised to lead.

However, some analysts note this is also a group that's very much part of the Washington establishment, which could lead to an insular approach to long-standing issues — such as Middle East conflicts — that remain unresolved.

Biden is expected to keep in place the directors of the FBI, Christopher Wray, and the National Security Agency, Army Gen. Paul Nakasone.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden pulled a bit of a surprise today in announcing his choice to lead the CIA. He said he plans to nominate William Burns, a career diplomat and former ambassador, to head the country's spy agency. This selection rounds out Biden's national security team. And for more on how that team is shaping up, we're joined now by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So if I'm not mistaken, the U.S. has never had a CIA director who spent an entire career as a diplomat. So why do you think Biden would choose someone like Burns instead of someone who comes directly from the intelligence community?

MYRE: Yeah, it is an interesting choice. Bill Burns, who's 64, spent his career at the State Department, not in the intelligence world, so he is an outsider of sorts. But in other ways, Burns fits Biden's pattern here of - for his national security team, picking very experienced people who've known Biden and worked with him and others around him for years. And we can really see Biden's contrast with President Trump here. Trump had this very rocky relationship with the CIA and the intelligence community throughout his term. Biden wants to rebuild that relationship and is picking people he's worked with back when he was in - vice president or even back when he was senator.

CHANG: OK. So tell us, what kind of diplomat was Burns?

MYRE: Well, he spent more than 30 years at the State Department before he stepped down in 2014. And he's been president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace since then. He's often been described as one of the most respected and skilled diplomats of his generation. He held a lot of top posts at the State Department here in Washington, numerous posts overseas. He was ambassador to Jordan, ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. That means he kept a close eye on President Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, Burns told NPR what it was like going into the Kremlin to present his ambassadorial credentials to Putin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILLIAM BURNS: Before I could get a word out of my mouth, President Putin said, you Americans need to listen more. You can't have everything your own way anymore. And, you know, that was vintage Putin. It was not subtle. He had a big chip on his shoulder, a sense of grievance. And it was defiantly charmless, just like Putin himself.

CHANG: (Laughter) Charmless. All right, well, Burns was also a key figure in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. He was, of course, critical of President Trump for pulling out of that deal in 2018. So given that, Greg, what do you think his nomination suggests about Biden's approach towards Iran going forward?

MYRE: Well, it reinforces Biden's message that he wants to get back in the deal if Iran is willing to accept all the restrictions that were laid down back in 2015. And Burns wasn't the only one who was a key negotiator. Jake Sullivan, who's the incoming national security adviser, was also an important figure. So the intent here is clear. But we are five years down the road, and you can't just turn back the clock.

Now, one idea we're hearing is a sense of a freeze for a freeze. The U.S. could freeze its sanctions on Iran. Iran would freeze its nuclear enrichment at the point where it is right now. Then both sides could try to sit down to figure out how to get back to the parameters of the deal, something that's possible, but certainly not a given.

CHANG: OK. Well, zooming out, I mean, Biden has made it clear that he thinks Trump's tenure was chaotic, that it greatly damaged the standing of the U.S. in the world. So what do you think now that we're seeing the shape of Biden's national security team? What's your sense of what the administration's most important national security priorities will be?

MYRE: Well, he want - yeah, yeah. He wants to get back to rebuilding relations with allies, reclaim a U.S. leadership role in the world, not promote proposing a grand vision. But he wants very experienced people who are well-known at home and abroad, and they can hopefully play a stabilizing role.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.