President-elect Biden Nominates William J. Burns as Head of CIA

Photo from Biden-Harris Transition Team press release

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated former diplomat William J. Burns to head the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the new administration, according to a January 11 press release from the Biden-Harris Transition Team.

Burns has worked as an American diplomat for 33 years and “holds the highest rank” in the U.S. Foreign Service, according to the press release. Burns wrote a memoir in 2015 entitled The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, which details his extensive accomplishments in foreign service. 

Burns retired from his post as Deputy Secretary of State in 2014 after serving under former President Barack Obama: his tenure with the administration garnered praise from Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry. Currently he is the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; previously he served as the Ambassador to Russia and Jordan. Burns “has received three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and the highest civilian honors from the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community,” the press release states. 

President-elect Joe Biden said, “Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure. 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.” 

Biden’s comments on Burns’ nomination reflect a growing fear that the Trump administration has politicized American intelligence agencies. In September, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) whistleblower claimed that Trump administration officials had been pressuring analysts at the DHS to alter intelligence reports to serve political goals. Brian Murphy, a former high level DHS official, alleged that his boss Chad Wolf asked him to “cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran.” Murphy claimed that these instructions came from Trump appointed officials. 

“Keeping our nation safe and secure requires intelligence that is apolitical and puts the American people first,” Vice President-elect Harris said on Burns’ nomination. “[Burns] will lead the CIA with independence and integrity, always honoring our nation’s intelligence professionals. And President-elect Joe Biden and I will work closely with Ambassador Burns — and our entire national security team — to prevent and prevail over any threat against the United States of America.”

On December 29, 2020, professor and former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman wrote an open letter to President-elect Biden urging him to choose Burns as the new CIA director. In 2017, Goodman wrote a book titled Whistleblower at the CIA: An Insider’s Account of the Politics of Intelligence about the role of whistleblowers in the CIA and their importance in the organization. In his letter, Goodman states that the next CIA leader “is particularly important at this juncture if the agency is to regain its credibility.” Additionally, Goodman was enthusiastic about someone with foreign service experience taking the helm: “Naming a Foreign Service Officer to head CIA would be ground-breaking and would contribute to reinvigorating the Agency’s morale and competence.” 

President-elect Biden’s choice of Burns for Director of the CIA could aid the new administration in strengthening their foreign affairs expertise and guide the agency in a new direction. The Biden team may hope Burns will help the agency move on, given his record as a steady handed career civil servant.

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