CIA pick William Burns signals a turn to diplomacy for the nation's spy agency

WASHINGTON — In the summer of 2010, the Obama administration had a thorny problem to solve.

The FBI was on the verge of finally arresting 10 members of an undercover network of “illegals,” Russian sleeper agents who had spent decades embedding themselves in American society, but senior officials wanted to salvage the administration’s ongoing diplomatic efforts to reset relations with Moscow. The White House was concerned the arrests would undermine Moscow’s help in pushing Tehran to the negotiating table, and its cooperation on other major international issues.

At the center of those complex discussions, recalled David Kris, who was then the head of the national security division at the Department of Justice, was Ambassador William Burns, who has been tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to head the CIA.

Burns, who was then the under secretary of state for political affairs, connected with Kris via a secure video conference on an almost daily basis as the case proceeded, and the pair would spend countless hours playing out the “six-dimensional chess of this thing,” Kris, a founder of consulting firm Culper Partners, told Yahoo News during a phone interview.

“Bill was able to see the big picture of the complexities of the case, and to not just look at it solely through the lens of diplomacy. ... He’s very smart, very thoughtful, and had an appropriately wide aperture for engaging with the hardest problems of national security,” Kris said.

While the full reset with the Russians largely failed, Burns’s experiences as a career diplomat, including the many occasions his work overlapped with the intelligence world, from the Russian illegals case to negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, have uniquely prepared him to lead the CIA under Biden, his former colleagues tell Yahoo News.

William Burns
Nominee for director of the CIA William Burns. (Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Biden announced his decision to appoint Burns on Monday morning, after months of discussions over who was best positioned to take the helm at CIA. Burns, unburdened by ties to the agency’s harsh post-9/11 legacy of detention and torture, and with a deep background in diplomacy, in Washington and overseas, was something of a wild-card pick, say national security experts. But he’s also the kind of unexpected choice that pairs well with Biden’s commitment to reestablish the U.S. on the world stage as a trustworthy ally following years of chaos under President Trump.

Burns, the 64-year-old director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written and spoken frequently about the importance of U.S. allies in confronting the world’s threats, many of which President Trump has exacerbated, he has argued. “Our biggest asset ... is our capacity to draw on alliances. That’s what sets us apart from lonelier powers like China or Russia today,” he said during a roundtable focused on foreign policy in a post-pandemic world hosted by Axios in September.

Biden’s earlier top contenders for the job, including former acting CIA director and longtime CIA veteran Michael Morell and former Obama-era sanctions czar and Deputy CIA Director David Cohen, both quickly congratulated Burns on the job on Twitter. “I’ve known Bill Burns for decades,” wrote Morell. “I’m thrilled for him and the agency. … His command of the issues, his deep respect for intelligence, and his care for people will ensure it.”

“Bill has the perfect mix of experience, expertise, and wisdom to lead the great women and men of CIA,” Cohen wrote.

Biden described Burns as “an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure,” in a statement published to the transition’s website. “He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect.”

Burns, who spent 33 years in the U.S. Foreign Service as well as in national security positions in five administrations, would be, if confirmed, the first career diplomat to be CIA director, though several former CIA directors, including George H.W. Bush and Leon Panetta, did not have significant experience in intelligence or the CIA when they were appointed to lead the agency.

Hosni Mubarak, right, and William Burns
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, meets with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns in Cairo, March 24, 2004. (AFP via Getty Images)

Burns was first inspired to pursue a career in foreign service in high school when a friend’s father was serving as the ambassador to Egypt, giving him the chance to visit Cairo, he said in an interview in June 2019.

Burns, whose father was a career Army officer, took the Foreign Service exam days after his future colleagues were taken hostage in Tehran in November 1979. He entered the Foreign Service in 1982, and served in various locations, including Amman, Jordan, where he’d later be appointed as ambassador between 1998 and 2001.

Burns’s postings, from Moscow to Amman, put him in challenging locations important to national security. He met Russian President Vladimir Putin when Putin was the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. Years later, in 2005, Burns would present his credentials to Putin as the U.S. ambassador to Russia. His posting to Moscow was also where Burns first met Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois. Current and former intelligence officials told Yahoo News Burns was highly respected in Moscow when he was ambassador in charge of reviewing the agency’s operations in the country. “He was a great partner,” one official recalled.

While Burns is not a career intelligence veteran, steeped in the insular culture that is the CIA, he has been a consumer and recipient of high-level intelligence for decades — information he’s used to engage with senior foreign leaders.

Burns also had extensive talks with former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing on Pan Am Flight 103, often in a tent in the middle of the desert at three in the morning, Burns has recalled. Later, he’d wind up in the middle of negotiations to get Gaddafi to give up his chemical and nuclear weapons. And, in his 2019 book, “The Back Channel,” Burns wrote about how the Jordanian intelligence directorate became an important ally in the Middle East, a relationship that remains vital to the U.S. today.

“During his long career, Burns seemed to bounce between two of the most conflicted and turmoil-ridden regions of the world, the Middle East and Russia, rising to ambassador in each of them. Few regions test the mettle of anyone like these two,” wrote Gary Grappo, a former U.S. ambassador to Oman who also served in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, in a piece for national security blog “The Cipher Brief.”

Vladimir Putin, front left, and William Burns,front right
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, front left, confers with U.S. Ambassador William Burns in 2008. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via Reuters)

Burns, who rose to be deputy secretary of state, also gathered important experience in Washington. He was at his desk at the State Department reading over his daily intelligence reports on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes and crashed them in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. He was also deeply involved in providing diplomatic advice in the aftermath of the attacks, warning against invading Iraq in a 2003 memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell, though he ultimately helped carry out the Bush administration’s plans. Burns has been upfront about what he describes as his “own failure to do more to prevent a war that we did not need to fight.”

Burns was an important player in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, under President Obama, alongside his intelligence and national security counterparts. Trump left the deal in 2018. Now Burns may be able to help guide the Biden administration back into the deal, or beyond it.

Burns, in his new role, “will give President Biden some very sound judgement based on his diplomatic career, including negotiating with the Iranians on JCPOA,” said retired Ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz, who served in Belarus and Georgia. Burns “knows all the Iranian players,” and while they won’t necessarily “hug each other,” Yalowitz continued, the Iranians have more respect for Burns as an interlocutor.

Former CIA Director John Brennan, who started at the CIA in 1980, recalled his and Burns’s careers crossing repeatedly over the years, particularly during the Obama administration.

On his first day on the job, Burns will need to spend time reassuring the CIA workforce while also learning what the CIA has been up to over the last four years of the Trump administration, said Brennan.

“Any covert action programs the CIA has underway will be inherited by the Biden administration,” Brennan explained. “Burns will be responsible for them. He needs to do a lot of listening and questioning. Those first few months certainly are going to be a time for him to get up to speed and ensure the CIA is able to support President Biden’s national security priorities.”

While new to the intelligence world, former colleagues cite his personality, sense of humor and ability to build relationships as a strong asset. When Burns, recognizable by his mustache, retired from the State Department in 2014, career State Department employees wore paper mustaches in his honor, recalled one attendee.

William Burns, left, and Javier Solana
Then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, left, with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana at a 2009 meeting on Iran's nuclear ambitions. (Dominic Favre/Pool via Reuters)

“He is tenacious, intelligent, loyal and holds his opinions close to the vest. He utilizes and listens to his subordinates. He will win over skeptics with his professionalism and willingness to listen,” wrote retired Ambassador Harry Thomas, who served in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Zimbabwe, in an email to Yahoo News.

“Bill was consistently one of the most thoughtful of my colleagues in the U.S. diplomatic service and uniformly performed with excellence in whatever position he held,” wrote retired Ambassador Earl Wayne, who held posts in Afghanistan, Argentina and Mexico, in an email.

Brett Bruen, a former diplomat who established consulting firm Global Situation Room, told Yahoo News that the only challenge Burns might encounter is the blurring of diplomatic lines with spying.

Bruen, who complimented Burns’s record, nonetheless cautioned that the decision to appoint a prominent former diplomat to lead the CIA might “be exploited by Russia, China, and other adversaries” who often try to argue that diplomats stationed abroad are all undercover spies.

“When you have one of our most storied diplomats taking command of our intelligence apparatus, it gives the impression the two are interchangeable,” he said, an impression Foggy Bottom works hard to avoid.

However, former CIA officers dismissed those concerns.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a recently retired senior operations officer, described Burns as a “titan of the foreign policy world” who is “well respected overseas” and understands the intelligence community.

“He has instant credibility,” said John Sipher, a former CIA Clandestine Services officer who was posted in Moscow, among other locations. “He will reassure allies and be a strong team player,” he said.

Sipher said Biden’s selection of a highly decorated diplomat also signals that Biden “values CIA and sees it as a key player in his foreign and national security strategy.”


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