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Biden's pick for CIA chief highlights threat from China

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·5 min read
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WASHINGTON — President Biden’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency told senators Wednesday that China’s “aggressive and undisguised ambition and assertiveness” is the single largest long-term geopolitical challenge to U.S. security.

William Burns, a respected former diplomat who enjoys bipartisan support, made his comments while testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of his confirmation hearing. While highlighting the role of China, Burns also reminded the panel that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not to be underestimated, because a “declining power” can be “just as disruptive as rising ones.”

The 64-year-old former ambassador to Russia and Jordan served for over 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, winning an array of honors from the U.S. and foreign governments. He would be the first spy chief to have previously served as a career diplomat, a difference he acknowledged during the hearing.

However, Burns has been at the forefront of a range of major national security and foreign policy discussions, coordinating directly with his counterparts in the intelligence community. He was the U.S. ambassador in Moscow when he first met Putin (then deputy mayor of St. Petersburg), and he helped then-President Barack Obama maintain diplomatic relations with Russia amid the FBI’s arrest of an undercover network of Russian “illegals” in 2010.

William Burns
William Burns, President Biden's nominee for CIA director. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via AP)

Burns took the Foreign Service exam at a particularly fraught time — just days after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 — and later helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal. He was one of the few in the room during the planning of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. “Bill saw the CIA in action,” said former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who, with former Secretary of State James Baker, introduced Burns during the hearing.

While the hearing was largely friendly, at risk of becoming a “full-fledged bouquet-tossing contest,” as described by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., senators also pushed Burns to explain his views on China in light of connections between the think tank he now leads, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Chinese Communist Party.

In response to pointed questions from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the vice chair of the committee, Burns said he “inherited” the Carnegie Endowment’s relationship with the China United States Exchange Foundation. He ended the relationship out of concern for foreign influence, he said.

As for the joint Carnegie-Tsinghua Center — another relationship with China — Burns said he made it clear to colleagues that “the moment we were constrained” in doing independent work, “we would cease operations.”

He also noted that the Carnegie Endowment helped arrange a congressional trip to Beijing in 2019, for both Democrats and Republicans, because he felt it was an important opportunity for staffers to meet with their counterparts and “express their concerns about Chinese actions directly.”

When asked multiple questions about his assessment of the CIA’s harsh post-9/11 counterterrorism programs, including torture, Burns said the U.S. government “learned very hard lessons in the period after 9/11,” and that, keeping those lessons in mind, he is “committed to what the law provides right now and ensuring those enhanced interrogation methods are never used again at the CIA.”

Ron Wyden
Sen. Ron Wyden. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Pool via Getty Images)

While Burns told Wyden he is supportive of a 2013 internal CIA recommendation to broaden the accountability review process to address systemic challenges within the agency in the future, he said he will not hold individual CIA officers accountable or withhold career advancement opportunities because of their previous involvement in the program, as they were working with DOJ permission and under presidential direction.

Multiple senators raised concerns about the still lingering mystery of brain injuries suffered by CIA officers and State Department employees stationed around the globe, first dubbed the “Havana Syndrome,” which some have speculated may be linked to Russia and microwave weapons, though no evidence has emerged showing such devices were used.

Most recently, the National Academies of Sciences concluded that directed energy or microwaves could be part of the cause of the injuries and sickness suffered by the victims, but were instructed not to speculate on the technical requirements of such a device.

The impact of the injuries and illnesses on CIA officers, in some cases career-ending, has been a subject of major importance to the agency’s workforce. Burns said he would be committed to doing everything in his power to determine the cause and culprits behind the alleged attacks, as well as making sure CIA officers got the highest degree of medical care.

Burns, if confirmed, will join an administration already facing a number of high-priority foreign policy challenges. He told the committee that he knows the Biden administration will soon be releasing its assessment on Russian activities, including alleged actions to penetrate federal and private networks through the IT monitoring tool SolarWinds as well as its imprisonment and alleged poisoning of Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “I look forward very much to participating in that effort and what flows from it in the future,” Burns noted.

Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (Press Service of Moscow City Court/Handout via Reuters)

Notably absent from the hearing, however, were questions on how Burns might approach the long-held close ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is expected soon to complete its assessment on the Saudi government’s role in the 2018 murder of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Burns also reaffirmed his responsibility for delivering truthful assessments and intelligence about the world, regardless of whether they align with Biden’s policy preferences. During the president’s phone call with him to offer the CIA job, Burns said the very first thing Biden told him was that he “wants the agency to give it to him straight.”

“I pledged to do just that,” Burns said.

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