Veteran US diplomat William Burns, nominated to lead the CIA, pledged Wednesday to keep the agency free of politics and said China would be his main focus if confirmed.
Burns was picked by President Joe Biden to replace retiring Central Intelligence Agency Director Gina Haspel and to help restore an air of independence after former president Donald Trump allegedly tried to manipulate the country’s spies for political reasons.
Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee that his career in the Middle East and Russia made him appreciate the value of untainted intelligence.
“I learned that good intelligence, delivered with honesty and integrity, is America’s first line of defense,” he told the panel.
“I learned that intelligence professionals have to tell policymakers what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it. And I learned that politics must stop where intelligence work begins.”
Burns also told the panel that China was the main challenge the country faces, echoing views stated by Biden and other top officials of his administration.
The CIA in particular has faced challenges, with China having recruited a number of US diplomats and spies over to its side in recent years and also, starting a decade ago, bringing down the CIA’s own network of informants in the country.
Burns said Xi Jinping’s approach amounts to “aggressive, undisguised ambition and assertiveness” that must be faced down in a long-term effort, in conjunction with allies that Beijing lacks.
“This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms,” Burns told the committee.
“This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious in technology and capable in economic terms as well.”
“Out-competing China will be key to our national security in the decades ahead. That will require a long-term, clear-eyed, bipartisan strategy, underpinned by domestic renewal and solid intelligence,” he said.
Cold-eyed view of Russia
Burns, 64, spent more than three decades in the State Department, serving as ambassador to Jordan and Russia before rising to deputy secretary of state in 2011-2014.
Since then he has been president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a leading Washington foreign policy think-tank.
If approved as expected by the Senate, Burns will be the first career diplomat to lead the CIA.
Quizzed by lawmakers on his views of US adversaries, Burns said that while China was the premier challenge, it would be a mistake to underestimate Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
“While Russia may be in many ways a declining power, it can be at least as disruptive under Putin’s leadership as rising powers like China,” Burns said.
“And so we have to be quite cold-eyed in our view of how those threats can emerge.”
But he stressed that, in contrast with Trump’s approach, a consistent response and working together with allies would be more successful in rebuffing Russia.
“We have more effects sometimes on Putin’s calculus when he sees firm responses coming not just from the United States, but from our European allies and others as well,” he said.
Iran nuclear talks
Burns was instrumental in 2013 – when Biden was vice president – in launching the secret negotiations with Tehran that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018, and Biden last week opened the door to new negotiations.
Burns said Tehran cannot be trusted with nuclear arms.
“I think it’s absolutely important for the United States to continue to do everything we can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Burns also told senators that under him the CIA would not engage in torture as it did of Al-Qaeda suspects after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
He noted that “enhanced interrogation” techniques were banned in 2009.
“I think it’s fair to say we all learned some very hard lessons in the period after 9-11,” he said.
“I believe that waterboarding does constitute torture under the law.”