While President-elect Joe Biden’s choice of a career diplomat as CIA director is an unusual one, Democrats say it’s necessary to pick someone without ties to torture and abuse scandals that have plagued the spy agency since 9/11.
(CN) — President-elect Joe Biden tapped William Burns to head the Central Intelligence Agency, filling another important position as Biden’s assumption of the White House is days away.
A career diplomat, Burns led the secret negotiations with Iran that resulted in the nuclear deal and rode back to the United States with the body of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed in Libya in the 2012 embassy attack that prompted the Benghazi scandal. It is unusual for a member or veteran of the State Department to run an intelligence agency, but supporters of the Burns nomination in Democratic circles argued it was important to nominate an outsider unsullied by previous torture and abuse scandals.
“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure,” Bidens said in a statement Monday. “He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical.”
Burns currently serves as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace after retiring from the State Department in 2014.
He has been scathingly critical of President Donald Trump and his State Department’s effects on international diplomacy, saying the Trump administration’s mistreatment of diplomats who expressed concerns about the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Hunter Biden eroded the status of the United States around the globe.
“In my three and a half decades as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, proudly serving five presidents and 10 secretaries of state from both parties, I’ve never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging, to both the State Department as an institution and our international influence, as the one now underway,” Burns wrote this past October.
Like many of the federal agencies heavily politicized under Trump, the CIA currently suffers from a morale problem after the president maligned many of the career workers as he sought to divert blame for the varied foreign policy scandals that emerged during his time in office.
“Donald Trump’s efforts to politicize the intelligence community combined with the unfortunate appointment as director of Gina Haspel, who was heavily involved in the torture and abuse program, have undermined (its) credibility,” said former CIA analyst Melvin Goodman, writing in Counterpunch. “Haspel’s confirmation created cynicism toward the process among many CIA officials — both active and retired.”
Burns has relationships with many other members of the Biden team, including director of National Intelligence Avil Haines and National Security adviser Jake Sullivan. Communication between the Biden cabinet and the CIA is viewed as paramount, particularly after an administration where the president often feuded with the CIA and called its agents “passive” and “weak” and prey to the Deep State.
Burns served as ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush and ambassador to Jordan under Bill Clinton, meaning he has experience working with both sides of the aisle.
“Ambassador Burns will bring the knowledge, judgment, and perspective we need to prevent and confront threats before they can reach our shores,” Biden said. “The American people will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA director.”
The nomination is somewhat surprising as many insiders believed former CIA acting director Michael Morell had an inside track to the position. But many top Democrats, including Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, opposed the nomination due to Morell’s past defenses of the torture programs run by the agency in the aftermath of 9/11.
Burns might not have been nominated if the Republicans had retained control of the Senate, due to his past affiliations with Benghazi. He testified on behalf of Hillary Clinton at one of the many hearings held on the subject during the Obama and Trump administrations.
Democratic control of the Senate figures to make the confirmation process easier.
The director of the CIA is not a formal member of the cabinet under Biden. While Trump included the CIA director as a cabinet member during his stint, it was not a part of the Obama cabinet either.