As the first career diplomat to lead the CIA, Director Bill Burns sometimes has to remember to stick to his role as America’s spy chief.
“I have to tell my colleagues around the table in the White House situation room to kick me under the table if I start to stray the other way,” Burns joked to the students. Stanford University in late October, referring to the tension between supporting politics in his new role and playing politics in his old one.
Yet, nine months into his presidency, Joe Biden uses Burns for missions that blur the lines between diplomacy and intelligence – acting as a public envoy in a way that some say is unprecedented for one. head of the CIA.
Biden has turned to Burns twice for international openings, the first time to meet with the Taliban in Kabul to iron out the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan in August and last month to convey Biden’s concerns about Ukraine to President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. A potential Russian invasion of Ukraine is arguably Burns’ most pressing challenge: U.S. officials believe Russia is preparing to launch an attack on its neighbor in early 2022 as it rallies up to 175 000 soldiers near the border.
“It has always been traditional to send the Director of the CIA to deliver messages outside of normal diplomatic channels, but Director Burns elevates this in a way that I’m not sure anyone before him can or anyone after. he can do it, “Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said.
Warner said Burns, a 65-year-old former ambassador to Jordan and Russia who developed a personal relationship with Putin and other key Russian officials, was a “unique asset” to the administration. It might deliver “a certain seriousness in the message that you might not get from a simple ambassador.” Burns also served as Assistant Secretary of State from 2011 to 2014.
Others see risks in this approach: former senior officials joke that the administration already has several secretaries of state in addition to Antony Blinken. John Kerry, a former secretary of state, is Biden’s climate envoy. Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who were seen as candidates for US diplomacy, were given other leadership positions in the administration.
“You know, I know it’s Ambassador Burns, but I think of him a bit like Secretary Burns,” Biden himself told a think tank in 2017, describing him as a “really good diplomat.” .
Michael McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia, said Burns was “perhaps our best diplomat.” . . time”.
“He’s your best player, there’s no doubt about it, even though he’s officially the director of the CIA.”
But McFaul added that it raised “a delicate question” whether your secretary of state was not the “elite diplomat” for certain aspects of politics. “The good news for the Biden administration is that Bill Burns and Secretary Blinken have worked closely together for a long time. There is no rivalry. But structurally, it’s strange. . . You don’t want the head of the CIA to be your main diplomat towards Russia. I think [sending Burns to Moscow] was very wise, but over time I don’t think it would be good for the State Department as an institution, or the NSC [National Security Council at the White House]. “
The Biden administration sees the two Burns visits as separate missions that were to be discreet and undertaken for specific reasons.
“The trips [to Kabul and to Moscow] had both diplomatic and intelligence elements, ”a senior official said, adding that the administration expected the visit to Moscow to become public but did not expect Burns to assume a regular role of the president’s public envoy. “We sent Bill because it was the wisest course of action given these circumstances and he was uniquely positioned to have this conversation. Everyone has been consulted.
Former senior CIA officials claim that agency directors and even station heads regularly meet with presidents privately and that a former incumbent President George Tenet negotiated an Israeli-Palestinian truce in 2001.
A person familiar with the matter said that it would not have been appropriate for Blinken to meet with a Taliban leader as it could have given legitimacy to the Islamist insurgents. It was an “extraordinary situation” and the Burns mission was about getting a message out rather than negotiating, the person said. The State Department only made Burns’ visit public after Moscow tweeted a photo, and the CIA never commented.
Burns, who in his 2019 memoir The back channel lamented the United States’ over-reliance on military force at the expense of diplomacy, remains a fan of the State Department. The person familiar with the matter added that there was no tension in the relationship between Burns and Blinken, saying the two spoke frequently, liked each other very much and that Burns had even recently visited the department of State for consultations, an unusual approach for a CIA director.
Burns is spearheading a “transition” to the spy agency two decades after supercharging covert action programs in the sprawling war on terror in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
“The CIA must return to its primary intelligence mission and not wage wars clandestinely,” McFaul said, adding that Burns was the “perfect transitional figure” to reorient the CIA for an era of great power competition with China. .
Burns is prioritizing the agency’s work on China, creating a new interagency team, leading a drive to recruit speakers and experts in Mandarin in countries where Beijing has a particular influence as well as cyberspecialists.
Burns still attends a weekly counterterrorism meeting and intends to build on that work for the new mission in China, which is particularly relevant in places where both issues are important like Africa.
“As we focus on China and other challenges, we continue to grapple with very real terrorism issues,” said a CIA official. “We have built a strong capability over the past 20 years that remains crucial for the future, and the relationships formed through the counterterrorism mission underpin our work with our partners on other intelligence challenges. . “
Burns accepted criticism of Afghanistan’s rapid collapse in Taliban hands, admitting that events happened “even faster than any of us expected.” He argued that the classified intelligence assessments revealed the “accelerated impact” that the total withdrawal of US troops would have on the collapsed political will of the Afghan leadership and military to resist the Taliban.
In another move seen as defending its workforce, it has prioritized an investigation into the mysterious health effects that CIA agents first reported in 2016 as part of the so-called syndrome. Havana, meeting the victims on day one and appointing a senior officer who helped find Osama bin Laden as the head of a team investigating his case.
“There was a dramatic change when Bill Burns took over,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former veteran CIA field officer who has led covert operations and suffered from health problems. “This is the validation we needed. . . I think he understands leadership.