No senator raised even a hint of opposition to Burns’s nomination. At times, members were more interested in his views on what U.S. policy ought to be toward foreign adversaries than how he would organize the CIA to tackle those challenges. As Burns noted, the CIA doesn’t make policy, it supports those who do.
But Burns, who most recently served as the deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, would bring a rare combination of policymaking experience and deep familiarity with intelligence to the job of CIA director.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the committee’s vice chairman, praised Burns’s “lengthy and distinguished career,” and said he expected to work with Burns “as a partner for the CIA’s work as our nation’s first line of defense.”
A full Senate vote on his nomination could come next week, congressional officials said.
Burns would take over the CIA at a moment of transition, as the agency emphasizes espionage against nation-states after nearly two decades of counterterrorism operations, which some current and former officials have said drained too many resources and distracted the CIA from its classic spying mission.
“Today’s landscape is increasingly complicated and competitive,” Burns said in his opening remarks. “It’s a world where familiar threats persist — from terrorism and nuclear proliferation, to an aggressive Russia, a provocative North Korea and a hostile Iran. But it’s also a world of new challenges, in which climate change and global health insecurity are taking a heavy toll on the American people; in which cyberthreats pose an ever-greater risk to our society; and in which an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.”
Burns paid special attention to China.
“If confirmed, four crucial and interrelated priorities will shape my approach to leading CIA: China, technology, people and partnerships,” Burns said.
Burns would assume leadership of a workforce that has been battered by four years of intense political conflict, in which President Donald Trump regularly accused career intelligence officers and their superiors of conspiring against him and trying to undermine his administration.
When President Biden nominated Burns last month, he emphasized what he called their shared belief “that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect.”
Burns pledged to ensure that politics doesn’t influence the agency’s work.
“That is exactly what President Biden expects of CIA. It was the first thing he told me when he asked me to take on this role,” Burns told lawmakers. “He said he wants the agency to give it to him straight — and I pledged to do just that, and to defend those who do the same.”
He also promised to investigate the source of a series of mysterious illnesses suffered by U.S. intelligence officers and diplomats that some believe may have been caused by microwaves aimed at American personnel. Russia is a leading suspect, U.S. officials have said.
“I will make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the attacks … and to ensure that colleagues and their families get the care they deserve,” Burns said.
Some former intelligence officers, including those who say they were victims of the attack, have complained that they didn’t get assistance with treatment and medical bills from the previous CIA director, Gina Haspel, and other top agency leaders.
“Given his long record of taking care of his people at the State Department, Burns can quickly regain the trust of the workforce by making this issue a priority,” Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer, who believes he was targeted in a Russian attack, wrote recently.
The committee chairman, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), noted that the committee had included provisions in previous intelligence budgets to support health care for victims.
Burns was asked about past controversies at the agency that occurred when he served in senior positions at the State Department, notably the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques against suspected terrorists.
“I believe that waterboarding does constitute torture under the law,” Burns said of the most controversial tactic. And he said that as long as he was in charge at the CIA he would ensure “those enhanced interrogation methods are never used again.”
But he said that intelligence officers who were involved in the interrogation and detention program shouldn’t face actions that would “prejudice their careers,” because at the time they were acting at the direction of the president and CIA leadership.
Burns has never held a position in the intelligence community, but his career in the Foreign Service placed him at the center of major foreign policy decisions and sensitive negotiations for decades, and he regularly interacted with intelligence officials. Current and former intelligence officers have enthusiastically greeted the nomination.
Robert Richer, a former No. 2 in 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 when Burns was nominated. Burns “knows the building,” Richer said, referring to CIA headquarters.
Burns retired in 2014 after a 33-year career in the Foreign Service.
Lawmakers encouraged Burns to aggressively confront Russia, which has interfered in U.S. elections and is blamed for a massive breach of American computer systems.
Burns also has extensive experience with Iran, playing a key role in the Obama administration’s efforts to forge a nuclear deal that was scrapped by Trump.
With Jake Sullivan, Biden’s White House national security adviser, Burns helped lead back-channel conversations with Iran that led to the 2015 agreement signed with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Burns told senators that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon.