On Monday, January 11, President-elect Biden announced his nomination of Ambassador William J. Burns to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
William “Bill” Burns, CIA Director
Burns is the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previously serving in the Obama-Biden administration as the Deputy Secretary of State from 2011 to 2014. Burns was a diplomat for 33 years, serving as Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs from 2001 to 2005, as Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2005 to 2008, and as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2008 to 2011. He is a career ambassador in the Foreign Service, and throughout his tenure has worked on the Israeli-Palestinian cease fire agreement of June 2001, on the elimination of Libya’s illicit weapons programs, and on efforts to reset relations with Russia at the outset of the Obama-Biden administration. Burns also was an early critic of pursuing regime change in Iraq, cautioning then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on the risks of that strategy in 2002.
In 2013, Burns, along with Biden’s new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, led the secret bilateral channel with Iran that ultimately resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and had met with Iranian officials secretly since 2008, when he was first dispatched by President Bush. Burns was considered to be on the shortlist of Hillary Clinton’s picks for Secretary of State in the leadup to the 2016 election. He is the author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal and writes frequently on U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy for the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, and others. Burns earned a B.A. in history from La Salle University and M.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar.
Burns is a well-respected career diplomat who retired from the foreign service in 2014 after serving in the number two job at the State Department. Burns has strong relationships with President-elect Biden, National Security Advisor-designate Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken (Blinken replaced Burns as Deputy Secretary of State), which will be helpful given that the Biden team has decided to not keep the CIA Director position as part of the Cabinet.
Burns is an interesting pick for CIA, given his foreign service background, and would be the first career diplomat to lead the CIA. Some former CIA operatives have touted the Burns appointment, citing his years as a consumer of the CIA’s intelligence and a partner with CIA operatives at U.S. embassies overseas.
After a career as a non-partisan foreign service officer, Burns has been a vocal critic of President Trump and his foreign policy, including in an October 2019 Foreign Affairs piece titled “The Demolition of U.S. Diplomacy”, where Burns criticized President Trump’s attacks on former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and Secretary Pompeo’s conduct at the State Department. He has also been a contributing writer at the Atlantic since 2019, writing more than a dozen pieces about Trump administration foreign policy.
Burns has been confirmed by the Senate with ease before for various positions. His confirmation hearing this time around is likely to focus on the role that Burns and Sullivan played in the Obama administration Iran negotiations.