Joe Biden picks veteran diplomat William Burns as CIA director

The veteran diplomat William Burns is to become the new director of the CIA, Joe Biden announced on Monday, in an “apolitical” appointment that marks a clear break with the partisan use of intelligence under Donald Trump.

The US president-elect hailed Burns as an “exemplary diplomat” and said that the American people will be able to “sleep soundly with him as our next CIA director”. If confirmed, Burns would become the first leader in the agency’s history whose career was spent at the US state department.

A former ambassador to Russia and Jordan, Burns led the US delegation in secret talks in 2013 with Iran over its nuclear programme. He has served under Republican and Democratic presidents and is expected to gain some bipartisan support. In 2014 he retired from the foreign service to run the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.

Burns is a well-regarded figure in diplomatic circles, known for his intellect, deep experience of foreign affairs and analytical gifts. In 2017 he wrote a stinging opinion piece calling out Vladimir Putin’s “aggressive meddling” in the US presidential election of the previous year – something Trump refuses to acknowledge.

Another recent blogpost was prescient. Burns predicted that Trump was unlikely to accept a “traditional bipartisan commitment to effective transition” if he lost the 2020 race to Biden. “The costs of confusion, mixed signals, and bureaucratic turmoil could be very high,” he wrote.

Burns has been a staunch critic of the Trump administration’s often erratic and isolationist foreign policy. He has stressed the importance of international alliances, in particular with European allies and with Nato, and has called for the rebuilding of the US foreign service.

“He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect,” Biden said in a statement. “Ambassador Burns will bring the knowledge, judgment, and perspective we need to prevent and confront threats before they can reach our shores,” he added.

Biden has a good working relationship with Burns over foreign policy issues, dating back to the Obama administration and to when Biden was chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. Burns was said to have been a candidate for US secretary of state. Biden chose Anthony Blinken instead.

If confirmed by the Senate, Burns would succeed Gina Haspel. As the first female CIA director, Haspel guided the agency under Trump during a period of unprecedented turbulence. Trump and his Republican allies frequently portrayed the CIA as part of the “deep state”, intent on wrecking his presidency

Trump fired several career intelligence professionals in favour of loyalists, including some with little to no experience in the field. He also accused US spy agencies and their British counterparts of “illegally spying” on his 2016 presidential campaign.

Burns has received three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and the highest civilian honours from the Pentagon and the US intelligence community.

A graduate of La Salle University in Philadelphia with advanced degrees from Oxford University, he joined the foreign service in 1982 and before being named ambassador to Russia in 2005 served as a top aide to secretaries William Christopher and Madeleine Albright as well as director of the policy planning office.

In 2010 confidential diplomatic cables written by Burns and fellow US diplomats in Moscow were leaked. They revealed Burns’s gloomy assessment of Russian democracy under Putin and the ambassador’s literary talents. One cable described a wedding Burns attended in 2006, hosted by the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.

“Ramzan … danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic stuck down in the back of his jeans,” Burns reported wryly. “After the dancing and a quick tour of the premises, Ramzan and his army drove off back to Chechnya.”

During a 33-year diplomatic career Burns was a close adviser and confidant to Christopher, Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

In his 2019 book The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, Burns called for a revamp of US diplomacy, while recalling his days in the field, including the early stages of the Obama administration’s Iran deal in 2013.

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