'Bouquet-throwing contest:' Biden's CIA nominee William Burns gets rave reviews in hearing

Deirdre Shesgreen and Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
·7 min read

WASHINGTON – William Burns appeared to glide through his confirmation hearing to become CIA director on Wednesday, winning marquee endorsements and frothy support from senators in both parties.

"I can't think of anybody that has the breadth of experience that you've had in the world," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Burns at one point.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has been a vocal critic of some CIA tactics, joked that the hearing risked "becoming a full-fledged bouquet throwing contest" as he heaped praise on Burns' human rights record.

The hearing opened with auspicious endorsements from two bold-named statesmen.

"The confirmation should be a bipartisan no-brainer," former Secretary of State James Baker told the Senate Intelligence Committee. Baker said Burns helped lead the country through the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany and combating Iraqi aggression.

“Bill is quite simply one of the finest and most intelligent American diplomats," he said.

Former CIA Director Leon Panetta said Burns' experience and unquestioned integrity make him a great choice to lead the agency.

"Bill Burns is the right person at the right time to lead the CIA," Panetta said. "I trust Bill Burns to be a director who will have their backs," he added of CIA workers.

Burns, President Joe Biden's nominee, has a globe-trotting resume and nearly four decades of experience negotiating with U.S. adversaries from Russia to Iran. He is not trained in espionage, but lawmakers noted that he has been a consumer of U.S. intelligence analyses for decades. And Burns himself said sharp, apolitical intelligence is vital for dealing with American's adversaries.

"Good intelligence delivered with honestly and integrity is the critical foundation for sound policy choices," Burns said.

Burns said the nation faces persistent threats, but China has become the greatest test.

“It’s a world where familiar threats persist – from terrorism and nuclear proliferation, to an aggressive Russia, a provocative North Korea, and a hostile Iran,” Burns said. “But it’s also a world of new challenges, in which climate change and global health insecurity are taking a heavy toll on the American people; in which cyber threats pose an ever-greater risk to our society; and in which an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.”

Burns has played critical diplomatic roles

Burns is a career ambassador and former deputy secretary of State who has been confirmed by the Senate five times. Experts say he is a unique choice for the CIA post because he comes from the world of diplomacy, not spy craft.

The 64-year-old Burns has served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan. He conducted back-channel talks with Iran that eventually led to the 2015 nuclear deal (later jettisoned by the Trump administration). He speaks Russian, Arabic and French.

Drawing on his time stationed in Moscow, Burns said the U.S. should not underestimate the threat from Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin.

"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. "Most of my white hair came from my service in Russia over the years," particularly dealing with Putin, he said.

If confirmed, Burns would take the helm of the CIA at a time of escalating threats from of China, Russian and Iran.

President Joe Biden nominated William Burns as his pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, tapping a retired veteran diplomat who helped lead secret talks with Iran. Burns spent over three decades in the US foreign service, including a stint as ambassador to Russia from 2005-2008, and high-ranking jobs in the State Department.
President Joe Biden nominated William Burns as his pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, tapping a retired veteran diplomat who helped lead secret talks with Iran. Burns spent over three decades in the US foreign service, including a stint as ambassador to Russia from 2005-2008, and high-ranking jobs in the State Department.

Burns: waterboarding is 'torture'

Under questioning, Burns said he wouldn’t allow enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding that were used more than a decade ago. But he said he wouldn’t punish career officers who participated in the program under Justice Department guidelines.

Waterboarding terror suspects for information became a scandal after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked whether Burns would employ any interrogation techniques beyond what is outlined in the Army Field Manual.

Burns said the policy has been settled since former President Barack Obama prohibited waterboarding in 2009 and Congress enshrined the policy in legislation under advocacy from a former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

“I believe that waterboarding does constitute torture under the law,” Burns said. “I think it’s safe to say we all learned some very hard lessons in the period after 9/11.”

Threats to U.S. from Russia, China, Iran

"Our country faces a host of hazards – from China’s drive to surpass the United States technologically, to Russia’s continued malign efforts in cyberspace and disinformation, to the ongoing threats from Iran and North Korea," Sen. Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate panel, said in his opening remarks.

The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, said the threat from China is greater than from Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“The threat from the Chinese Communist Party is the most significant facing our nation in perhaps its history," Rubio said. "We cannot, in my view, just be the orderly caretakers of our nation’s decline."

Rubio asked about connections to China from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where Burns has served as president for six years.

One example was the endowment’s participation in the China United States Exchange Foundation, which Rubio said was a front for neutralizing opposition to the Chinese government. Another example was a 2019 trip to China for 11 congressional staffers, whom Rubio said met with officials seeking to influence policy toward China. A third example is a partnership in Beijing between Carnegie and Tsinghua University, which Rubio said did research that represented a cyber threat.

“Given your stated concerns about China’s soft-power influence efforts, why while you were at the helm did the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace establish relationship with and accept funding from this group?” Rubio asked.

Burns said he inherited the program with the exchange foundation and ended it because he shared Rubio’s concerns. Burns said the 2019 delegation, which included staffers from both parties and both chambers of Congress, was an opportunity for officials to engage directly. And Burns said Carnegie would withdraw from the center with Tsinghua if its research weren’t independent.

“I share your concerns about foreign influence operations,” Burns said.

Cornyn asked Burns whether Iran could be trusted with a nuclear weapon.

“No, sir,” Burns said. “I think it’s absolutely important for the United States to continue to do everything we can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

Burns would likely play a behind-the-scenes role in the Biden administration's efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which barred Iran from developing a nuclear weapon became one of the most contentious foreign policy debates during that administration. Former President Donald Trump scrapped the deal, but Biden has said diplomatic efforts must resume.

Burns promised to provide Biden with "unvarnished" intelligence assessments of Iran even if it contradicts the administration's policy goal of returning to the 2015 deal.

Burns didn't serve in 'vacation spots'

A former chairman of the intelligence committee, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he looked forward to Burns' confirmation after his service in battle zones. "You've not been given vacation spots," Burr said.

Burns said he worked with CIA officials as a diplomat in the Middle East and Russia and “developed enormous respect” for their contributions.

“I served alongside them in hard places around the world,” Burns said. “It was their skill at collection and analysis that often gave me an edge as a negotiator; their partnership that helped make me an effective ambassador; and their insights that helped me make thoughtful choices on the most difficult policy issues.”

Cornyn asked Burns whether Iran could be trusted with a nuclear weapon.

“No, sir,” Burns said. “I think it’s absolutely important for the United States to continue to do everything we can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

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Warner has previously said that Burns' status as an apolitical diplomat could help restore confidence and morale at the CIA after four years of attacks by Trump. Trump repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence community's work, particularly when it came to conclusions about Russia's attacks on the 2016 and 2020 elections.

"As a career diplomat under Democratic and Republican presidents, (Burns) has established himself as a smart and tested public servant who is free from political interference," Warner said in response to Burns' nomination. "Now more than ever, our intelligence and defense communities deserve leaders who will not politicize our national security institutions."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: William Burns, career diplomat, sails through CIA confirmation hearing