CABINET HEARING: William Burns, Nominee to be Director of the CIA

February 24, 2021
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

On Wednesday, February 24, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held a confirmation hearing for President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Ambassador William “Bill” Burns. In the non-classified portion of the confirmation hearing, topics included China, Russia, Iran, cyber threats, the so-called Havana Syndrome, supporting human capital, and enhanced interrogation. 

ISSUES RAISED

 

  • China – Multiple senators raised concerns about the security threat posed by China, including through attempts to influence internal policy debates through programs like Confucius Institutes, and asked Burns how he views this threat and what can be done to counter it. Burns said China is the biggest geopolitical test facing the U.S. in the years ahead, and it was at the head of his list of priorities as well as his list of threats. He stated it was due to his increasing concern about China’s attempts to interfere in domestic policy debates that he ended the partnership between the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the China-United States Exchange Foundation. He said the military and security threat posed by China also has economic impacts in the U.S., and the economic threat can have security implications. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) expressed concern that security issues may be put by the wayside in favor of climate gains. Burns said action on climate is in China’s own self interest, so climate action is not something to be traded away. Burns stressed the need for a long-term, bipartisan strategy to confront China and noted the CIA’s ability to provide intelligence on China’s intentions and capabilities would be a vital part of that strategy. He said Xi Jinping’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” has been somewhat beneficial in opening the eyes of allies and partners to China’s intentions, and he recommended capitalizing on that with intelligence and diplomatic partnerships.
  • Use of Technology by the CIA – Multiple senators noted the CIA’s specialty is human intelligence and asked how Burns views the role and operations of the CIA changing with the rapid pace of technological development. Burns said human intelligence has not been eclipsed in its usefulness but acknowledged the need to expand CIA’s repertoire to keep pace with the rapidly changing technological landscape. Especially in regard to China, Burns implied a need to enhance the CIA’s intelligence gathering capabilities. Burns said it is incumbent on the CIA to be forward-looking in its intelligence gathering capabilities, specifically highlighting the increased actions in the space sector by adversarial powers.
  • Havana Syndrome – Multiple senators expressed concern about the negative physical affects impacting several individuals deployed by the State Department and CIA overseas, including a high occurrence of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), which were nicknamed the Havana Syndrome, and asked what Burns will do to address it. Burns committed to following through on his predecessor’s work to ensure any adversely affected employee will have access to the highest quality care, and he committed to working to identify the cause, attribute the source, and hold accountable the perpetrators. 
  • Enhanced Interrogation/Torture – Multiple senators asked about Burns’s views on enhanced interrogation. Burns’s opinion is that it is settled law that enhanced interrogation techniques are outlawed, noting that legal techniques for interrogation are listed in the Army Field Manual. He said since CIA agents were acting under guidance from the Justice Department and at the direction of the President at the time, he does not believe agents who participated in previous enhanced interrogation programs should be punished, prejudiced against, or otherwise negatively impacted.
  • Agency Morale – Several senators raised concerns with reports of worsening agency morale and a shrinking workforce and asked how Burns will address these issues. Burns said supporting and empowering the employees of the CIA is one of his top priorities, and he would emphasize to the workforce that their job is to provide the best intelligence available to relevant policymakers free from political interference. He committed to protecting his workforce from any ramifications of speaking truth to power, noting the tone of the agency gets set by its leadership, and he highlighted his own history of speaking truth to power in sharing concerns about the trajectory of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He said some changes may need to occur in recruiting, noting the lengthy process of background checks, which severely limits the possible candidates and reduces the needed diversity in the agency. Burns also committed to providing the best health services possible to CIA’s paramilitary forces, who can face the same injuries and risks as members of the military. 
  • Cyberthreats – Multiple senators raised concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. cyber infrastructure and asked how the CIA can best help defend and secure U.S. cyberspace. Burns said it is crucial the CIA is prepared to detect these attacks and accurately attribute them, as without attribution it is hard to deter future attacks. He also emphasized the need for strengthening partnerships, both with domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies, like the FBI and DHS, but also with private industry, who have a vested interest in cybersecurity, as well as foreign allies and partners, like Estonia, which have had to respond to major cyberattacks before to learn from their experiences.
  • Iran – Multiple senators raised concerns about Iran, nuclear proliferation, and malign activities in the Middle East. Burns said the U.S. should never accept or allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb. He stated the U.S. cannot afford to ignore subversive actions by Iran in the region, nor can it ignore ballistic missile development. He highlighted Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent comments that if Iran were to return to the standards set by the JCPOA, the U.S. would as well, with an understanding that this would just be the foundation of more stringent efforts to change Iran’s behavior. 
  • Russia – Multiple senators raised concerns with adversarial actions taken by Russia in recent years and asked Burns’s view of Russia and how to challenge their actions. Burns said it is always a mistake to underestimate Putin’s Russia, arguing 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. He said reacting to threats with consistency and firmness is essential to establishing deterrence. He noted he has seen that when the U.S. works to the maximum extent possible with allies and partners, it impacts Putin’s calculus.

 

TAKEAWAY

Burns garnered bipartisan praise from lawmakers on the committee, many of whom have already expressed their intent to support his nomination. Many of the senators’ questions reflected Burns’s strong background as a lifelong diplomat and mirrored many of the topics discussed during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s confirmation hearing, such as China, Russia, and Iran. Burns emphasized the apolitical role of the intelligence community, saying, “I learned that intelligence professionals have to tell policymakers what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it.” 

WHAT’S NEXT?

The Senate Intelligence Committee will next meet to vote on Burns’s nomination, though no meeting has yet been scheduled. Additionally, there is a currently a crowded floor schedule, and the Senate is also expected to continue its work on the next COVID-19 relief package, so it is unclear when Burns may get his confirmation vote on the full Senate floor. Congressional officials have estimated it may be as early as next week.