Burns would take over the nation’s leading spy agency at a moment of heightened tension between the United States and its adversaries, chief among them Russia — which has interfered in U.S. elections and is blamed for a massive breach of American computer systems — as well as China and Iran. And he would inherit an agency that has spent the past four years defending against a political onslaught by President Trump, who accused former CIA leaders, along with others at the FBI and the Justice Department, of engaging in a conspiracy to hobble his 2016 presidential campaign. Recently, in an attempt to discredit an investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible ties to the Russian government, administration officials declassified information about Russia’s election interference that officials worry could compromise the CIA’s sources and operations.
“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure,” Biden said in a statement. “He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect.”
As CIA director, Burns would not be a member of the Cabinet. Trump had elevated the position, a departure from historical norms. Biden intends for the director of national intelligence to serve as the premier intelligence official in his administration, according to people familiar with his planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. It remains to be seen how that will be accomplished. On paper, the DNI has long been the leader of the intelligence community, but in practice, it is the CIA director who wields the most influence and controls the most sensitive operations.
Biden had already announced that he will nominate Avril Haines for DNI. She had previously served as the deputy director of the CIA but, like Burns, does not have an extensive leadership history in the intelligence community.
The position of CIA director is Biden’s last major personnel choice in a transition that has been marred by uneven cooperation from the Trump administration. Trump has also refused to concede his election loss and continues to baselessly claim that Biden won the presidency because of rampant voter fraud.
Burns, who is the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has never worked in an intelligence agency. But his career has placed him in positions that regularly interact with the intelligence community, and he has been at the center of major foreign policy decisions and sensitive negotiations.
Robert Richer, a former No. 2 leader of the CIA’s clandestine service, served with Burns in two overseas postings, including in the Middle East.
“I saw a man who was multidimensional, a man who listened, including to contrary views, and was able to take multiple inputs of information and process them,” Richer said. While Burns has no experience as a spy, Burns “knows the building,” Richer said, referring to CIA headquarters. “He was supportive of multiple, complex, agency efforts, and he worked seamlessly with the military and the CIA.”
With Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for White House national security adviser, Burns helped lead back-channel conversations with Iran that led to the 2015 nuclear agreement signed with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement, and Biden has pledged to rejoin it.
Burns joined the Foreign Service in 1982. He was only the second career diplomat to rise to deputy secretary at the State Department, in 2011. He also served as the undersecretary of state for political affairs, a key leadership position, and the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs. A Russian speaker, he also served as the ambassador in Moscow, from 2005 to 2008, where he was able to directly observe Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Burns’s selection drew initial praise from U.S. foreign policy and intelligence circles and is likely to be greeted enthusiastically abroad, particularly by close allies who have spent the past four years trying to manage Trump’s erratic approach to national security issues.
“Bill Burns gained deep familiarity with high-level intelligence during the top posts of his exemplary diplomatic career and, perhaps more importantly, his extensive management experience in the foreign policy realm provides him a strong foundation for this new role,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer and presidential briefer. “He has the potential to follow in the shoes of someone like Leon Panetta — who lacked time in the intelligence community but used his deep and wide experience to lead CIA effectively.”
“Burns has extensive experience with the intelligence community, both in foreign policy circles in D.C., as well as overseas,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia and had extensive experience in the Middle East. “My sense is that he valued the intelligence product as a key consumer and also respected and listened to those on the front lines who were involved in acquiring the intelligence. As such, he should be seen as a great choice among the various tribes at CIA, both analytic and operational.”
Burns emerged as a leading candidate for CIA director in the past few weeks, after Biden was said to be considering a number of former officials for the job. Among the contenders were David S. Cohen, a former CIA deputy director, as well as Lisa Monaco, whom Biden plans to nominate as the No. 2 official at the Justice Department. Observers were puzzled as to why Biden took so long to name a CIA director but noted that Haines’s choice as DNI was among his first major selections, signaling that he intends for her to play a more active role in national-security decision-making than have previous intelligence directors.
The job of confirming Burns and other Biden nominees could be delayed if the House moves to impeach Trump for inciting a mob to attack the Capitol last week. If the House sends articles of impeachment to the Senate, that chamber must conduct a trial before taking up any other business.
Burns could also face scrutiny from Republican lawmakers about the 2012 attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, including at a CIA facility. Burns was the No. 2 at the State Department at the time, and he subsequently acknowledged shortcomings in protecting personnel.
“We clearly fell down on the job with regard to Benghazi,” Burns told House lawmakers investigating the attack, which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
In his memoir, Burns complained that the Benghazi investigation was exceedingly political.
“Legitimate questions about what more we should have done on security were wrapped up in a set of investigations and hearings that were astonishingly cynical, even by the standards of modern Washington,” Burns wrote in “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.”
Joby Warrick contributed to this report.