National Security

Senate confirms former diplomat William Burns as CIA director

The Senate on Thursday confirmed William Burns as CIA director, marking the first time in decades that a former diplomat will lead the agency.

Senators approved his nomination by voice vote.

Burns, an ambassador twice over who finished his diplomatic career as deputy secretary of State, has played a key role in major security matters for multiple administrations.

His nomination by President Biden earned bipartisan support, and he was introduced at his confirmation hearing by James Baker, who led the State Department under former President George H. W. Bush, and Leon Panetta, CIA director during the Obama administration.

Thursday’s confirmation came after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a potential 2024 White House contender, dropped his blockade of Burns’s nomination.

Cruz had threatened to hold up the nomination over questions about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. But announced on Thursday afternoon that Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning that entities involved in the controversial Russia-to-Germany project could be sanctioned convinced him to back down.

“In light of the Secretary’s strong declaration, I’m following through on my commitment to lift the NS2-related holds I have placed on William Burns & Brian McKeon, the President’s nominees for director of the CIA & Deputy Secretary of State for Management & Resources,” Cruz tweeted. 

During his confirmation hearing, Burns sought to strike a different tone than that set under former President Trump, who often dismissed the intelligence gathered by U.S. 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.”

He also made clear he sees China “our biggest geopolitical test,” an area where he received much agreement from China hawks on both sides of the aisle.

“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 during his confirmation hearings.

“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 was U.S. ambassador to Russia between 2005 and 2008 and was U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001. He retired in 2014 and has been serving as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He will take over at CIA at a time when the Biden administration has said diplomacy will be a cornerstone of its national security strategy.

“America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back,” Biden wrote in his recent interim national security strategic guidance.

Updated at 6:08 p.m.

Tags Antony Blinken CIA Diplomacy Donald Trump Joe Biden Jordan National security Russia Senate confirmation State Department Ted Cruz William Burns

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