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William Burns, Biden's CIA pick, vows "intensified focus" on competition with China

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Washington — Ambassador William Burns, President Biden's nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, vowed on Wednesday to boost efforts to collect intelligence on China and to approach competition with Beijing with "intensified focus and energy."

A career diplomat, Burns appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing, where he earned bipartisan praise for his decades of public service and widespread support for his nomination to lead the spy agency. 

"There will be areas in which it will be in our mutual self-interest to work with China," Burns said in his opening remarks before the panel, but said "predatory Chinese leadership" nonetheless posed the "biggest geopolitical test" faced by the United States. 

Burns said, if confirmed, he would implement a "whole-of-agency approach to the operational and analytical challenges of this crucial threat," including by increasing the number of China specialists and Mandarin speakers at the CIA.

He also cited lingering threats from the likes of Russia, North Korea and Iran, whose hostile behaviors Burns said would continue, in ways both "familiar" and unpredictable. 

"Most of my white hair came from serving in Russia over the years," said Burns, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008 and dealt personally with its current president, Vladimir Putin. Under Putin, Burns said, Russia will continue to be "at least as disruptive" as China.

Senate Intelligence Committee holds hearing on William Burns nomination to be CIA director on Capitol Hill in Washington
William Burns before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 24, 2021. TOM BRENNER / REUTERS

Burns also fielded questions about the recent SolarWinds cyberattack on federal agencies and private sector companies, which the Biden administration has blamed on Russia. Burns called the intrusion a "harsh wake-up call" and said the U.S. must shore up crucial infrastructure to prevent and deter breaches.

"I think it's essential for the CIA in particular to work even harder to develop our capabilities to help detect these kinds of attacks when they come from external players, from foreign players, which is the responsibility of the CIA," Burns said, adding that the U.S. should "develop our own technological and cyber capabilities" to deter future attacks.

"Over time, I've been convinced, [we should] work with like-minded countries, allies and partners to not only build leverage, but to build rules of the road that help protect critical infrastructure, that help make clear international understandings that certain kinds of critical infrastructure are off-limits for those kinds of cyberattacks," Burns continued. "That'll take time. That'll take enormous effort. But I think the CIA and intelligence will be an important part of that effort."

In response to concerns raised by multiple lawmakers of both parties, Burns also promised to "get to the bottom" of mysterious microwave attacks that have sickened dozens of former intelligence officers and diplomats since 2016.

He repeatedly pledged to ensure agency employees and their families who were injured in the microwave attacks would get "the care that they deserve" from the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

"If I'm confirmed as director of CIA, I will have no higher priority than taking care of people, of colleagues and their families. And I do commit to you that if I'm confirmed, I will make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who's responsible for the attacks," Burns said.

In 2016 and 2017, dozens of Americans who had worked in diplomatic facilities in China and Cuba came down with serious brain injuries, suffering what came to be known as "Havana syndrome." At least 40 Americans, including diplomats and CIA spies, came down with neurologic symptoms including memory loss, impaired vision and loss of balance. 

A U.S. government report issued in December 2020 found that "Havana syndrome" was likely caused by a form of targeted microwave energy, but the origin of the attack is still unknown. Former officers have said they suspect Russia is behind the attacks. 

"It was very encouraging, and frankly pretty emotional to me personally, that Bill Burns pledged to Senators Rubio, Warner and Collins that he would absolutely ensure proper medical care at Walter Reed for our officers who are [traumatic brain injury] victims," said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who began suffering debilitating symptoms after a trip to Moscow in 2017. He has struggled to receive medical care since then.

At the beginning of the hearing, Burns was introduced by former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, who served during the Obama and Clinton administrations, and former Secretary of State James Baker, who served during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Panetta and Baker both praised Burns' long record of public service and urged senators to confirm him.

Baker called Burns "one of the finest and most intelligent American diplomats that I had the pleasure of working with." His confirmation, Baker said, should be a "bipartisan no-brainer." 

Members of the committee near-uniformly praised Burns for his diplomatic accomplishments, and many posed questions that probed his knowledge of foreign policy rather than intelligence matters.

Burns spent over three decades at the State Department, where he served as deputy secretary of state from 2011 to 2014. He has since retired from government and has been serving as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

If confirmed, he will be the first career diplomat to lead the CIA, though he served as ambassador in significant overseas posts — including Moscow and Amman — where the agency maintains a robust presence.

He was also among the small group of U.S. officials tasked by former President Barack Obama to lead secret discussions with Iran about a potential nuclear deal beginning in 2013, though he left government before the final agreement was struck two years later, in 2015. The Biden administration has made several overtures to Tehran in an effort to restart talks on the nuclear deal, most of which have been publicly rebuffed.

Burns' extensive overseas experience and contacts, alongside his reputation as a serious statesman, have made his nomination a welcome one to current and former intelligence officials.

"Bill Burns will make a terrific DCIA. He has been a consumer of intelligence for years, and he has worked closely with CIA officers both in Washington and overseas," said Michael Morell, former CIA acting director and CBS News Senior National Security contributor. "Most important, his humanity and care for people will win over the organization." 

Morell was himself considered a top candidate for the directorship but withdrew his candidacy after several Democratic senators indicated they would oppose his nomination over past comments he made about CIA's enhanced interrogation program.  

During the Trump administration, the agency was thrust repeatedly into an uncomfortable spotlight by the president himself, who complained frequently about what he termed a "Deep State" of operatives bent on undermining his administration. Burns' immediate predecessor, Gina Haspel, largely avoided public appearances throughout her tenure.

At the hearing, Burns committed to keeping politics out of intelligence — something he said Mr. Biden had personally demanded. 

"He said he wants the agency to give it to him straight," Burns said, "and I pledged to do just that, and to defend those who do the same." 

Burns, who has already held five Senate-confirmed positions, is expected to be confirmed on a bipartisan basis for a sixth time.

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