The latest high-profile nomination sends clear signals that the Biden administration will endeavour to repair diplomatic ties damaged during Trump’s tenure in the White House.
US President-elect Joe Biden has announced his intent to nominate former Ambassador William Burns, 64, as CIA director. The nomination could see the veteran diplomat appointed director of the United State’s foremost intelligence agency.
The nomination of the CIA director is a high profile choice Biden has had to fill after many weeks of assigning cabinet and administration positions. Burns, who initially was a contender for Secretary of State won out over other CIA director candidates such as David Cohen, former CIA deputy director from 2015 to 2017.
With over 33 years of experience in foreign policy and speaking Arabic, Russian, and French, Burns has worked for the US State Department throughout several presidencies including the Obama administration.
His deep experience as a diplomat in addition to the long-standing ties he shares with the President-elect from when Biden served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to yield a close relationship between the White House and CIA.
Old hand, same problems
The nominated director played a key role in starting secret talks with Iran, ultimately playing a role negotiating the JCPOA deal that saw it give up its nuclear program in return for sanction relief from six western nations including the United States. While Trump withdrew from the JCPOA agreement in 2018, Burns could play a key role in reviving talks with Iran.
Burns also served as the US ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, giving him deep insight into President Vladimir Putin. Russian meddling in American elections has been a ranking issue on the US foreign policy agenda in recent years. Other career milestones include Burns’ service as the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005, and the US ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001.
Biden announced that Burns’s first priority would be to ensure intelligence collection and analysis was not shaped by politics after President Trump’s scathing critiques of US intelligence agencies. This comes after Biden told national security advisors that he seeks to ensure the CIA and other intelligence agencies are conducting their work without political influence.
The CIA is legally overseen by the director of national intelligence, in spite of the autonomy it enjoys. Under Trump’s tenure as President, the directors of national intelligence serving under his administration have allegedly taken partisan tones that have risked the impartiality of US intelligence agencies.
On Monday morning, the president-elect Biden stated that Burns “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect.”
Known for a non-partisan background, Burns has held key diplomatic positions under both Democratic and Republican administrations. In one respect, nominating a candidate with a bipartisan reputation will likely make the process of Senate confirmation easier.
Burns not only enjoys a strong relationship with president-elect Biden, but has also previously worked extensively with Biden’s national security team on the Iran nuclear deal. His experience with intelligence started early on throughout his postings as an ambassador and during his state department career.
Burns’ nomination reflects Biden’s focus on classical security threats, given the former’s experience with Iran and Russia. While currently serving as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns has not held back on stating that the Trump administration has damaged US diplomacy.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton describes Burns as a “steady hand” and “very effective firefighter. He is also the author of an autobiography widely considered to be the seminal text to American post-Cold War diplomacy, now certain to see more sales as policy makers around the world try to gain an insight into his way of thinking.
Even though he wasn’t always a direct part of the foreign policy and intelligence establishment, Burns has still held a relative level of thought leadership with his writings and voice.
In 2002, Mr. Burns wrote a memo that has since been named the “Perfect Storm” memo, highlighting the dangers of US intervention in Iraq. In it, he laid out a detailed prediction of what could go wrong in the US war on Iraq, years before it would take place.
In 2016, Burns was one of 100 leaders, thinkers and national security figures who co-signed a letter calling on “the people of the United States to reject torture absolutely” and requesting “all public officials to explicitly disavow torture and to adhere to legal bans on torture.”
Biden’s nomination of CIA director is also significant given Burns’ background as a foreign service and diplomatic official, and not a career intelligence official like the present CIA director Gina Haspel. At the heart of Biden’s choice is a commitment to international diplomacy and ties that deteriorated significantly under Trump’s term.
Biden’s nomination of Burns likely also takes into account the nominee’s to Avril D. Haines, who is already nominated for the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) which oversees the country’s 17 intelligence agencies. While the DNI is technically senior to the CIA director, no tensions between the two are expected given they have worked together previously during Haines’ time in the US state department.
As CIA director, Burns is likely to face a bolder Russia foreign policy and an increasingly belligerent China, in addition to the threats of climate change and the global pandemic that Biden has pinned at the heart of his national security agenda.