Top spies call William Burns, first career diplomat to lead CIA, 'an inspired choice'

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden's choice of career diplomat William Burns to be the next CIA director is drawing praise from veterans of the spy agency, who say the CIA will benefit from his deep foreign policy experience and his long relationship with Biden.

If confirmed by the Senate, Burns, who speaks both Arabic and Russian, would be the first career diplomat to lead the CIA, an agency with a paramilitary arm and a drone program that has often butted heads with the State Department. But the CIA also cooperates regularly with State, and Burns worked closely with agency operators as ambassador to Russia and Jordan.

"This is a great pick," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA operations officer who worked in the Middle East and against Russia. "He's a titan of the foreign policy world, very well respected overseas, knows the intelligence community. Field officers really liked him."

"He is a wonderful choice," emailed Michael Hayden, who was President George W. Bush's CIA director.

Former CIA director John Brennan added, "Bill has an outstanding reputation. He worked with operators for years overseas as Chief of Mission," a term for ambassador. Ambassadors are usually kept well informed about CIA operations in their countries and often know more about them than almost anyone else, given the "need to know" restrictions on secret information.

Related: Burns, who speaks Russian, Arabic and French, most recently served as deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama.

Burns, 64, is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an international affairs think tank in based in Washington.

He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after serving as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, and after a 33-year diplomatic career.

He served from 2008 to 2011 as under secretary of state for political affairs; as ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008; as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005; and as ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001.

His other posts in the Foreign Service have included: executive secretary of the State Department and special assistant to former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Moscow; acting director and principal deputy director of the State Department's policy planning staff; and special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

"Amb. Burns is an inspired choice," tweeted Douglas London, a former CIA operations officer. "Not an intelligence practitioner but a sophisticated consumer with whom CIA worked closely" on Libya and the Iran nuclear deal.

London and others noted that Burns has a long relationship with Biden going back to when the president elect chaired the foreign relations committee in the Senate. And what the CIA wants more than anything else in its director is a smooth relationship with the president, the top intelligence customer.

Burns will helm an agency that has been buffeted by the winds of President Donald Trump's contempt for the intelligence community, even though its current director, Gina Haspel, has so far survived what is believed to be a desire by Trump to fire her.

Biden picked Burns after considering Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director who spent a career at the agency, and David Cohen, a former deputy CIA director and lawyer who has also worked in the Treasury Department.

Initially, Biden wanted Thomas Donilon, a former Obama national security adviser, but Donilon withdrew his name from consideration, two people familiar with the matter told NBC News.

Not only is Burns' record not marred by what most Democrats believe are past CIA mistakes, including the torture of al Qaeda detainees, but Burns raised questions beforehand about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which most Democrats believe was an epic blunder.

His memo, entitled "The Perfect Storm," said that if done right, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein could "be a tremendous boon" to American security interests, but laid out a litany of things that could go horribly wrong, much of which came to pass.

Biden voted in the Senate to authorize the war and was initially supportive of it, although he consistently criticized the Bush administration's handling of it.

Burns, who served Republican and Democratic presidents, had little patience for President Trump. In a 2019 interview with NPR, he said:

"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. I think what President Trump has done is turned that on its head, so enlightened self-interest is a lot more about the 'self' part than the 'enlightened' part."

The Biden team has said that the CIA director will not be a member of the cabinet, and that Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, will be the top intelligence official.

John Sipher, a former CIA operations officer, said Burns is "respected by Biden and his team. He is a longtime practitioner and consumer (of intelligence). Knows all of our allies. Perfect choice."