- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2021

President-elect Joseph R. Biden has picked a State Department lifer and a staunch advocate of diplomacy with Iran to head the CIA, tapping former Ambassador William Burns to head the spy agency after a tumultuous four years under President Trump.

Mr. Burns, who has never worked on the intelligence side of the government ledger, has called President Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama-era Iranian nuclear deal “foolish” and openly questioned the strategic value of the U.S. drone strike that killed Iran’s top military general last year.

A former ambassador to both Russia and Jordan who rose to the rank of deputy secretary of state under Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden’s pick is well known and respected by foreign leaders. But there’s little question of where he’ll stand on guiding the next administration’s policies toward adversaries such as Iran, North Korea and China.

Several intelligence community sources said Monday that they expect Mr. Burns will push hard to reduce U.S. reliance on violent tactics like the January 2020 strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and instead advocate for expanded back-channel diplomacy and communication with the Iranians and others.

The selection triggered concern among some foreign policy hawks on Monday, but former high-level intelligence officials were quick to rally behind Mr. Burns, claiming his deep institutional and geopolitical experience have already earned him widespread respect at the CIA.

The 64-year-old diplomat was known to liaise with the intelligence agency during his 33-year career at the State Department, during which he served under both Republican and Democratic presidents. He is reportedly fluent in Arabic, Russian, and French from his Foreign Service days. He retired from government services six years ago to run the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace think tank.

By the time he retired, the mustachioed Mr. Burns was popular among rank-and-file CIA and State Department employees. Some fondly recalled Monday how people who had served with him donned fake mustaches when he gave his farewell speech at State in 2014.

“There was a lot of love in that room,” one former official said. “It showed a lot of connection with his people, and it was a diverse group of people wearing these things.”

With Democrats soon to be in charge on Capitol Hill, Mr. Burns is expected to cruise through the confirmation process. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, California Democrat, called him a “superb” pick on Monday and incoming Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, described him as “a smart and tested public servant who is free from political interference.”

Mr. Burns will succeed Gina Haspel, the first female CIA director and a low-profile career intelligence officer, who has guided the agency through some often touchy moments with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump regularly expressed skepticism about intelligence and frequently disparaged the assessments of the American spy agencies — especially with regard to findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help Mr. Trump win.

Mr. Biden said in a statement Monday that Mr. Burns shares his “profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical.”

“Ambassador Burns will bring the knowledge, judgment and perspective we need to prevent and confront threats before they can reach our shores,” the president-elect said. “The American people will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA director.”

It was one of the president-elect’s last major national security personnel picks, and one of the more surprising. Mr. Burns had not been on many lists as a possible head of the nation’s biggest spy agency.

Working with rank and file

Michael Morell, a career intelligence officer who has twice served as acting director of the CIA and whose name was floated for the CIA job, was among those praising Mr. Biden’s choice Monday, predicting Mr. Burns will be embraced by the spy agency’s rank and file.

“I’ve known Bill Burns for decades,” Mr. Morell tweeted. “He will be one the great CIA directors. His command of the issues, his deep respect for intelligence, and his care for people will ensure it.”

The sentiment was echoed by Norman Roule, a retired CIA official who focused on the Middle East during a 34-year career with the spy agency.

“I have personally watched Bill Burns engage with intelligence officials and consume all source collection and analysis,” Mr. Roule told The Washington Times. “He is deeply respectful and demanding of the intelligence community, he has no problem speaking truth to power, and he spends a tremendous amount of time taking care of his people. I’m confident that he will ensure that the organization is structured and resourced and arrayed to produce on high-priority targets.”

Mr. Roule declined to comment when pressed on how Mr. Burn’s might impact specific issues such as Iran, at a moment when Mr. Biden appears intent of reinvigorating the nuclear deal that the U.S. and other world powers struck with Tehran in 2015.

Other intelligence community sources, however, cautioned that the Burns nomination rounds out a slate of Biden administration national security officials who all worked in the former Obama administration during the lead-up to the nuclear deal.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan worked closely with Mr. Burns on behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the Iranians at the start of Mr. Obama’s second term. The team will also include former Obama advisors Avril Haines, who’s been tapped to be director of national intelligence; Susan Rice, who will run the Biden White House’s domestic policy council; and Brett McGurk, who will oversee the NSC’s Middle East portfolio.

Perhaps most important, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who headed the 2015 nuclear talks with Tehran, will be present Mr. Biden’s “climate czar,” with a broad but undefined mandate spanning multiple areas.

“They all know what they want in the Iran nuclear deal,” one intelligence community source said on condition of anonymity Monday. “All they need is a fresh intelligence brief to make sure nothing’s changed and they’ll be pushing for it.”

But one intelligence analyst privately warned of “group think,” suggesting the host of former Obama administration officials getting jobs could make it difficult for dissenting opinions to be heard or for Mr. Biden to chart a different course. 

While Mr. Burns has a reputation for valuing dissent and diverse opinions, the CIA nominee has forged a close relationship with Mr. Sullivan, the incoming national security advisor. The two have made no secret of their distaste with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018.

“The consequences of the Trump administration’s foolish decision to abandon that nuclear deal last year, with no evidence of Iranian noncompliance, were predictable — and predicted,” the two wrote in a joint op-ed published by The New York Times in 2019.

The Trump administration “believed unrealistically that its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign and saber-rattling would cause Iran to fold and accept America’s terms,” they wrote. “But it failed to see that Iran has its own cards to play. Rather than capitulate, the Iranians have conducted increasingly provocative actions in the gulf, and started advancing their nuclear program.”

Mr. Burns and Mr. Sullivan came together again to criticize Mr. Trump’s decision last January to authorize the surprise strike that killed Iran’s top military commander.

“The collateral damage from the strike on Qassem Soleimani will likely be greater than the Trump administration bargained for,” they wrote in The Atlantic at the time. “Indeed, the strike already appears to be feeding the gnarled ambitions of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, by producing a more unified regime with a tighter grip at home; an even more precarious American military position in Iraq and Syria, with the Iraqi parliament now calling for U.S. withdrawal; and the death of the Iranian nuclear deal and the whole notion of diplomacy with the Great Satan.”

• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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