Biden’s CIA head leads the charge against Putin’s information war

William Burns, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, speaks to the Senate Intelligence Committee during a hearing examining worldwide threats on Thursday, March 10, 2022.
Anna Rose Layden

As Russia began amassing troops on Ukraine’s border late last year, CIA Director William Burns was ready.

A career ambassador, Burns spent two tours at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and is one of the Biden administration’s foremost experts on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

President Biden in November quietly dispatched the former U.S. ambassador to Russia to try to negotiate with the Kremlin and warn them of consequences should they move forward into Ukraine.

Eventually, Burns was one of the central figures in the unusual decision by the administration to proactively declassify and release intelligence on Russian “false flag” operations in Ukraine as a way to disrupt Putin’s messaging and endgame.

“The fact that the administration sent him to Moscow was the right call. That’s who I would send,” said Daniel Fried, former ambassador to Poland and distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council.

“He was effective, skillful, and he got along with the Russians as well as anybody possibly could because he’s low key, soft spoken, thoughtful, and he was there during better periods of relations, during the [George W.] Bush administration. So he saw Putin when things weren’t great, but they weren’t so bad,” Fried added. “That personal knowledge is deep and real.”

Atop the CIA, Burns helms a vast bureaucracy whose work is supposed to be kept secret — under usual circumstances.

But the Biden administration, principally Burns and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, decided to take a novel and risky approach as Russia escalated threats to Ukraine, one that the administration believes has paid off in disrupting Putin’s war plans.

“In all the years I spent as a career diplomat, I saw too many instances in which we lost information wars with the Russians,” Burns recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“In this case, I think we have had a great deal of effect in disrupting their tactics and their calculations and demonstrating to the entire world that this is a premeditated and unprovoked aggression built on a body of lies and false narratives. So this is one information war that I think Putin is losing,” he said.

While many older Russians largely have access to only government-controlled media, a younger, tech-savvy generation has been able to access reactions and reports from the U.S. and Europe as citizens protest the Ukrainian invasion in the streets despite thousands of arrests.

“For many years now, Moscow has worked to perfect the use of misinformation and propaganda to drive wedges and create confusion in the West. Calling out Putin’s machinations, like those we have seen in the run-up to the invasion, help to deny him the pretext he sought to justify his offensive,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Hill.

“The declassified intelligence the administration released has helped to do that, and it was made possible thanks to work by the intelligence community and other national security agencies and departments, drawing from a wide range of intelligence collected,” the official said.

Burns was confirmed to lead the CIA early on in the Biden administration. His nomination was noncontroversial, and he enjoys broad respect in national security circles and among Democrats and Republicans. He is the first career diplomat to lead the agency.

Some see Burns as a natural fit, particularly as the Biden administration navigates the burgeoning crisis in Europe, given his decades of experience in foreign capitals and particularly his dealings with the Kremlin.

“He may be the perfect man in the perfect space,” said Steve Cash, a national security lawyer who previously worked at the CIA and as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It’s clear to me that what we’re seeing is maybe the best example of a whole of government approach in a really coordinated way to a foreign policy crisis.”

James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence under Obama and worked alongside Burns, noted that he awarded Burns the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal for “his astute use of intelligence” when Burns retired as deputy secretary of State toward the end of 2014.

“I thought it was an inspired choice when his nomination was announced, and, from all reports I get, he is highly regarded by the work force at CIA,” Clapper told The Hill in an email.

Burns took the helm of the CIA at a time of low morale for the intelligence community, whose work former President Trump often dismissed.

Burns has stressed he saw the agency as an asset in his longtime career as a diplomat and hopes his work at the State Department brings a fresh perspective.

“Working with those colleagues over those nearly 35 years made me a better diplomat, a better negotiator, a better policymaker because of the intelligence that they collected and the insights that they provided. And I’d like to think, at least I hope, that my experience as an ambassador, as a policymaker will make me a better director of CIA,” he said during a discussion at Stanford University in October.  

In his short tenure, Burns has made some visible changes at the CIA. He launched a new mission center focused on China in October, a nod to the administration’s focus on the threat posed by Beijing.

Biden has leaned on Burns’s experience in back-channel negotiations, dispatching the veteran diplomat to meet with the leader of the Taliban last summer as the Biden administration grappled with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But perhaps his most valuable and visible work has had to do with Russia.

Burns, who spent three years working with high-level Russian officials during his ambassadorship, has been essential as the U.S. tries to analyze Putin’s mindset.

Even as some in Washington harbored doubts about Putin’s intentions last winter, Burns cautioned during a Wall Street Journal event that he would “never underestimate President Putin’s risk appetite on Ukraine.”

“The person who knows [Putin], whose judgment I would trust, is of course Bill Burns,” Fried said.

Burns, who also served as ambassador to Jordan, likes to quip he earned most of his snowy white hair from his time spent in Moscow.

“I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now,” he told lawmakers in recent appearances before both chambers’ intelligence committees, describing Putin as someone who has been “stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition for many years” while his inner circle of advisers shrinks as he rejects those who disagree with him.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Burns had “shown extraordinary insight into Putin’s thinking,” while Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) thanked Burns “for just not letting us forget just who and what we are dealing with.”

Burns had left Moscow by the time Putin waged his first incursion into Ukraine, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. By then, he was serving as deputy secretary of State and was among a cadre of officials who were responding to Russia’s aggression from the Situation Room.

The Biden White House, which is home to many Obama-era officials, has communicated that one of the major lessons learned from the 2014 crisis is the need to push back more aggressively on Russian disinformation.

Russia has tried to use disinformation tactics to obscure what is transpiring in Ukraine and convince sympathetic audiences that Putin is not the aggressor, but it has so far failed at controlling the narrative.

“That is a fog that can be dispersed in part by excellent intelligence work,” said Cash.

—Laura Kelly contributed. Updated Monday at 4:03 p.m.

Tags Avril Haines Bill Burns Donald Trump James Clapper Joe Biden Moscow Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Susan Collins Ukraine Ukraine invasion Val Demings Vladimir Putin William Burns

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