75 years for CIA, and one for William Burns

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A former diplomat, William J. Burns is President Biden’s choice to lead the CIA and has been an envoy in the role, abroad and with the workforce.

The Central Intelligence Agency marks its 75th anniversary on July 26, its most recent year a rather eventful one under the leadership of former diplomat William J. Burns. The 139 stars etched in anonymity on its Memorial Wall bear witness to the agency’s complicated and poorly understood history, one of triumphs known by few and disasters known by all. If the Cold War’s end pushed the CIA into the wilderness searching for relevance and 9/11 took it to an existential crossroads for survival, then Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine provides it a path to redemption and influence that its current director appears to be navigating well.

The 1947 National Security Act created the CIA as a compact and agile organization deliberately void of policymaking responsibilities and assigned to public obscurity. The culture was intended to capture the words carved into its entrance, “And Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free.”

But the organization that Burns inherited more than a year ago was one that, as I argued in my book, had lost its way after 9/11. The CIA’s credibility suffered from politicization analytically, as reflected by its 2002 posture on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and operationally as it took on warfighting, prisoner detention and interrogation responsibilities that the Defense and Justice departments were neither capable nor legally authorized to handle, and perhaps simply wise enough to avoid. In the process, the CIA’s culture shifted from a dynamic and elite spy service into a paramilitary organization that prized fealty, conformity and, all too often, the right religion, race and gender.

The practical consequences of the agency’s focus on kinetic counterterrorism operations distracted it from emerging threats such as the Islamic State and an increasingly aggressive Russia and China, as well as the evolving technology revolutionizing the operational landscape. And in the years following 9/11, the CIA endured a series of devastating, self-inflicted wounds, most notably the Enhanced Interrogation Program and the deaths of seven of my colleagues on Dec. 30, 2009 in Khost, Afghanistan, when an agent under al Qaeda control blew himself up. CIA leaders chose to navigate many of these episodes by circling the wagons.

Like the rest of the U.S. Intelligence Community, the CIA was long resistant to diversity. A 2015 report commissioned by the CIA said the “underrepresentation of racial/ethnic minority officers and officers with a disability at the senior ranks is not a recent problem and speaks to unresolved cultural, organizational, and unconscious bias issues.” And morale suffered further during the Trump administration years as intelligence became increasingly filtered to avoid antagonizing a commander in chief who became irate at news that did not conform to his personal agenda and predetermined conclusions.

But for all its troubles, Ambassador Burns was given the keys to an elite organization whose people had, time after time, accomplished the impossible. And Burns arguably got a lot right in his first year. Prioritizing China, technology and the workforce were hardly controversial choices, but he matched words with action. The CIA created a China Mission Center and the Technology and Transnational Mission Center, to better focus talent and align resources to take on today’s greatest intelligence challenges.

Burns named operations officer Dave Marlowe to run the agency’s clandestine service, installing a senior leader known for mentoring, operational acumen and fairness. And he showed the door to those CIA executives most responsible for the agency’s toxic environment and politicized diversions. In a rather low-key, bureaucratic maneuver, rather than fire them, he withheld the mandatory retirement waivers on which many of this crowd long had depended.  

Burns chose another well regarded senior officer to lead the Havana Syndrome Task Force but angered possible victims and their colleagues with the CIA’s opaque conclusions that most of the reported cases were “unlikely to have been caused by Russia or another foreign adversary.” After releasing the findings, Burns wrote to staffers and annuitants of his commitment to keep investigating roughly two dozen unexplained cases. Unlike his predecessors, Burns has been more communicative with the workforce and its retirees.

Faced with a complex, evolving operational landscape that includes ubiquitous technical surveillance, cyber and artificial intelligence, Burns appointed intelligence community veteran Nand Mulchandani as the CIA’’s first chief technology officer. The CIA in the meantime has become more open to private sector collaboration and to challenging old tradecraft methodology.

Under Burns, the CIA has ventured into unchartered operational territory. The agency was forward leaning in declassifying intelligence in a manner that weaponizes it, information that almost certainly included human source reporting. The CIA has even leveraged social media, posting Russian language instructions for those seeking secure contact. Burns appears to have provided top cover for operational risks by supporting the extraction of Americans and the CIA’s intelligence partners in Afghanistan.

While CIA executives for some time have been rated for their attention to diversity and inclusion, under Burns, such requirements are taken more seriously. The most recently reported class of senior executives was the most diverse in the agency’s history, with 47 percent women and 27 percent people from minority backgrounds, exceeding the percentages of women and minorities in the agency’s total workforce.

Burns promised a smart, holistic strategy for health and wellness to staffers long leery of the professional consequences in acknowledging physical or mental health issues. It’s a commitment that I hope will be more than words since, as reflected by a congressionally mandated medical oversight board, it probably will take more than a new gym to convince the workforce of a more accepting, supportive atmosphere.

Addressing transparency and accountability, Burns’s first public speech affirmed his belief that the CIA has “an obligation to help the citizens on whose trust we rely on to understand what we do and how we organize our priorities” and “an obligation to be straight not just about our accomplishments, but also about our mistakes.” Whether recruiting a foreign agent to risk their all or persuading a foreign government partner to chance the political consequences of their cooperation’s exposure, reliability and credibility is everything — a spy’s word must be their bond. Securing the public’s trust in such commitments, actions and risks the CIA’s takes depends on buy-in enabled only with accountability when things go askew.

While Burns is receiving praise as an envoy, there has been muted criticism. All CIA directors undertake a somewhat back-channel diplomatic role in their routine foreign travels, but the White House might be tapping the well too often. Besides potentially usurping Secretary of State Antony Blinken abroad, Burns’s presence at home is key for advancing reforms and exerting the CIA’s influence with other key principals, namely at Defense, State and FBI.

Still, perhaps the question is, how long will Burns remain CIA director with midterm elections around the corner? Speculation at the agency is that Burns was, in any case, only an interim fill to allow his deputy, David Cohen, the opportunity to secure greater confidence from the Democratic political faithful and the CIA’s workforce.

Burns appears to be relishing his job, however, and remains one of the most liked senior officials in Washington. But he’s hardly a revolutionary and there’s much that still needs fixing at the CIA, such as closure in accounting for the sins of its past and those responsible. Still, the CIA is better for Burns’s leadership and on the right trajectory, at least for as long as it lasts.

Douglas London teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. A Russian-speaking operations officer, he served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years, including three assignments as a chief of station, one in a former Soviet state. He is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5.

Tags Central Intelligence Agency CIA Director of the Central Intelligence Agency intelligence community

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