WASHINGTON | William Burns, a well-known figure in diplomatic circles around the world, is President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to lead the CIA, one that likely will be embraced by the rank-and-file at the nation’s premier spy agency.
A former ambassador to Russia and Jordan, Burns, 64, had a 33-year career at the State Department under both Republican and Democratic presidents. He rose through the ranks of the diplomatic corps to become deputy secretary of state before retiring in 2014 to run the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.
Amid tumult in the State Department after President Donald Trump took office in 2017, Burns held his tongue until last year when he began writing highly critical pieces of the Trump administration’s policies in Foreign Affairs and other publications. Burns has been a staunch advocate of rebuilding and restructuring the foreign service, positions Biden has aligned himself with.
“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure,” Biden said in a statement Monday. “He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect. Ambassador Burns will bring the knowledge, judgment, and perspective we need to prevent and confront threats before they can reach our shores. The American people will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA director.”
Burns was said to have been a candidate to be Biden’s secretary of state. Biden chose Anthony Blinken instead.
Burns has received three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and the highest civilian honors from the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. He has doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar.
Burns, a graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia with advanced degrees from Oxford University, joined the foreign service in 1982 and before being named ambassador to Russia in 2005, served as a top aide to former Secretaries of State William Christopher and Madeleine Albright as well as director of the State Department’s policy planning office.
Burns was a close adviser and confidante to Christopher, Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry before his retirement.
In his 2019 book “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal,” Burns called for a revamp of American diplomacy, while recalling his days in the field, including helping to spearhead the early stages of the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran in 2013.
Michael Morell, a career intelligence officer and former acting director of the CIA whose name was floated to hold the top position under Biden, praised the pick, an indication that Burns likely will be embraced by the spy agency’s rank and file. “I’ve known Bill Burns for decades. … His command of the issues, his deep respect for intelligence, and his care for people will ensure it,” Morell tweeted.
Burns succeeds Gina Haspel, the first female CIA director, who guided the agency under Trump, who has frequently disparaged the assessments of U.S. spy agencies, especially about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to help his campaign.
The president has placed quote marks around the word intelligence in his tweets, implying that he doesn’t agree with the term, and has fired several career intelligence professionals in favor of loyalists, including some with little to no experience in the field.
The CIA post is not expected to be a Cabinet-level post under Biden. The CIA stopped being a Cabinet-level position during the George W. Bush administration. That’s because in 2005, after 9/11, the Office of the National Intelligence Director was created to oversee and improve cooperation among all the agencies within the U.S. intelligence community. The director of national intelligence, not the CIA director, was in the Cabinet.
Trump elevated the CIA director post back up to a Cabinet-level position and both Haspel and National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe sit in his Cabinet.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.