National Security

Biden CIA pick pledges to confront China if confirmed, speak ‘truth to power’

CIA Director nominee William Burns
Roll Call/Pool

William Burns, President Biden’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had his first appearance before lawmakers Wednesday, where he pledged to ramp up the agency’s response to China while tackling a wide range of ongoing threats.

Burns, an ambassador twice over who finished his diplomatic career as deputy secretary of State, would be the first diplomat to lead the agency after weighing in on major security matters for multiple administrations.

Though he laid out threats ranging from cyberattacks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burns listed China as one of his top priorities for the agency should he be confirmed, calling relations with the nation “our biggest geopolitical test.”

“China is a formidable authoritarian adversary, methodically strengthening its capabilities to steal intellectual property, repress its own people, bully its neighbors, expand its global reach and build influence in American society,” he said.

“For CIA that will mean intensified focus and urgency, continually strengthening its already impressive cadre of China’s specialists, expanding its language skills, aligning personnel and resource allocation for the long haul and employing a whole-of-agency approach to the operational and analytical challenges of this crucial threat,” he said.

Burns also stressed the need for the U.S. to bolster its partnerships with other countries to combat Chinese influence.

“China and its wolf warrior diplomacy has actually created opportunities for us because it’s helped open the eyes of lots of partners and allies not just across Asia, but in other parts of the world, to the nature of that threat,” he said. 

Burns was introduced by former Secretary of State James Baker, who led the department under former President George H. W. Bush, and Leon Panetta, who led the agency during the Obama administration, a nod to the bipartisan backing of Burns as numerous Republican senators said they would vote to confirm him.

“This confirmation should be a bipartisan no brainer,” Baker said.

But Burns also sought to strike a different tone than that set under former President Trump, who often dismissed the intelligence gathered by his own agencies.

“Good intelligence delivered with honesty and integrity is America’s first line of defense. I learned that intelligence professionals have to tell policymakers what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it,” Burns said of his experience working alongside intelligence officers during his time with the State Department.

“And I learned that politics must stop where intelligence work begins,” he added. “That is exactly what President Biden expects of the CIA. It was the first thing he told me when he asked me to take on this role. He said he wants the agency to give it to him straight. And I pledged to do just that.”

When questioned by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) about keeping intelligence separate from politics, Burns emphasized his commitment to providing only the facts.

“Speaking truth to power has to be more than a slogan,” Burns said. “I do understand from those perspectives how crucial that it is to have the best possible intelligence the CIA can collect delivery with honesty and integrity.”

One key area that became heated under the Trump administration was intelligence around Russian malign influence.

In the wake of the discovery of what has become known as the SolarWinds breach, which U.S. officials believe was “likely” carried out by Russia in an espionage effort that compromised much of the federal government, Biden has pledged to take a range of steps to push back against Russia.

Burns, the former ambassador to Russia under former President George W. Bush, warned that the federal government should not underestimate the Kremlin, particularly with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the helm. 

“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,” he said.

With the SolarWinds hack putting cybersecurity concerns in the spotlight, Burns also committed to strengthening the CIA’s cyber capabilities and training, along with increasing efforts to attribute cyberattacks to specific nations and enhancing cyber partnerships with foreign allies.

“The SolarWinds attack was a very harsh wake-up call,” Burns testified. “I think it’s essential for the CIA in particular to work even harder to develop our capabilities to help detect these kinds of attacks when they come from external players from foreign players.”

Beyond concerns about specific nations, numerous lawmakers pressed Burns to commit to securing better resources for members of the intelligence community experiencing “Havana syndrome,” noting that the U.S. has still yet to confirm the source or manner of attacks that have led to a suite of neurological issues.

“We still don’t know the source of those attacks. We still don’t potentially have a full medical diagnosis, and even though we have put in into law in the last three info authorization bills, the ability for the CIA director to provide enhanced benefits to those individuals the kind of first rate quality health care and compensation they need and deserve, we’re not sure that’s really taking place,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said.

Burns committed to securing medical care and rooting out the source and manner of the attacks, which some have posited could be caused by microwaves.

“If I’m confirmed as director of CIA, I will have no higher priority than taking care of people — of colleagues and their families,” he said. “And I do commit to you that if I’m confirmed I will make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the attacks that you just described, and to ensure that colleagues and their families get the care that they deserve including at the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed.”

Despite the myriad of challenges facing the nation, Burns was optimistic about the global standing of the country at the start of a new administration.

“Whether people like our policies or hate them, what they expect from Americans is problem solving, a sense of possibility, a sense of optimism,” he said. “That’s what they admire most about our society when it’s operating at its best. … We don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, but we ought not to underestimate that core strength that American society has and brings to the world.”

Tags Angus King China CIA Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Mark Warner Vladimir Putin William Burns

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