On January 11, just days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the then U.S. President-elect nominated William Burns as the country’s next CIA Director. If confirmed, Burns, 64, will be the first career diplomat to lead the country’s premier intelligence agency.

Burns’s confirmation hearing took place last Wednesday and received bipartisan praise from lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who made it clear they intend to support his appointment.

As Burns’s confirmation moves closer to a vote, let’s take an inside look into his accomplished career and how he intends to lead the CIA.

Update: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines issued the following statement on March 18:

“On behalf of the Intelligence Community, I offer my heartfelt congratulations to Bill Burns on his confirmation as director of the CIA. Bill is an extraordinary public servant, having dedicated the majority of his life to government service representing our country with distinction as a diplomat and a leader around the world. The respect he engenders in and outside government is a consequence not only of his distinguished career and intelligence but also his generosity and integrity. I am deeply grateful to call Bill a friend and have him as a colleague. I look forward to working with him to advance the Intelligence Community’s mission in service to our nation.”

A Burns Family Affair

When Burns will most likely be sworn in as the next director of the CIA, he will follow in the footsteps of providing high-level service to the United States government.

His father, retired United States Army Major General William F. Burns, a highly decorated Army officer and Vietnam combat veteran, served as one of the nation’s top nuclear arms negotiators in the 1980s, when his son was just starting as a foreign service officer.

In 1988, the elder Burns was nominated by then-President Ronald Reagan to lead the State Department’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and served on the first U.S. special envoy to denuclearization negotiations with former Soviet countries.

A generation later, the younger Burns also received the presidential call.

Born in 1956 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Burns spent most of his teenage years living in the greater Philadelphia area, as his father was selected to be a student at the U.S. Army War College. He enrolled at La Salle University to study history and later earned master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall scholar. When Burns moved back to the U.S., he entered public service for what ultimately became a 33-year diplomatic career.

Burns Has a Life of Service Leading to CIA

Before retiring in 2014 and joining the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to serve as its president, Burns’s career centered on foreign affairs. His accolades as a diplomat extend to both home and abroad, and he holds the highest rank in the service – that of a career diplomat.

Burns’s tenure comprised of serving under five American presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, and 10 secretaries of state in a variety of posts, including as ambassador to Jordan in the Clinton administration and to Russia under George W. Bush.

His work earned him the recipient of three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and several Department of State awards, including three Secretary’s Distinguished Service Awards and two Distinguished Honor Awards. In 2013, Foreign Policy named him “Diplomat of the Year”.

During the Obama administration in 2011, Burns served as deputy secretary of state, where he was only the second serving career diplomat in history to hold the position.

Most notably during his tenure under former President Obama, Burns helped launch secret nuclear talks with Iran, though he retired from the State Department before the deal was reached in 2015.

Burns’s experience as a career diplomat brings a rare combination of policymaking experience and deep familiarity with intelligence to the job of CIA director. This combination has helped him receive praise as the nominee from those who worked inside the agency.

“An outsider to CIA and not. He’s worked well with us on any number of sensitive programs. Well respected, inclusive, unpretentious. Not an intelligence practitioner but a savvy customer who works the Washington scene effectively,” said Douglas London, a longtime CIA station chief and, at his retirement in 2018, chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia, told Foreign Policy in a text message on January 11.

Rave Reviews Through Bipartisan Support

February 24 marked the first time the Senate Intelligence Committee held a confirmation hearing on the CIA Director hopeful. The notably uncontentious hearing – which received bipartisan support – largely focused on how Burns will deal with threats from China and Russia.

“Today’s landscape is increasingly complicated and competitive,” Burns said in his opening remarks.
“It’s a world where familiar threats persist — from terrorism and nuclear proliferation, to an aggressive Russia, a provocative North Korea, and a hostile Iran. But it’s also a world of new challenges, in which climate change and global health insecurity are taking a heavy toll on the American people; in which cyber threats pose an ever-greater risk to our society; and in which an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.”

Throughout the hearing, Burns paid special attention to China as a national security threat.

Out-competing China will be key to our national security in the days ahead. That will require a long-term clear-eyed bipartisan strategy underpinned by domestic renewal and solid intelligence,” said Burns.

For the CIA, “that will mean intensified focus and urgency, continually strengthening its already impressive cadre of China 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 importance of “firmness and consistency” in responding to Russia.

Burns said he learned through his foreign policy work “in dealing with those threats, responding to them and deterring them, firmness and consistency is hugely important, and it’s also very important to work to the maximum extent possible with allies and partners.”

“We have more effects sometimes on Putin’s calculus, when he sees responses coming, firm responses coming not just from the United States, but from our European allies and others as well. So, it pays off to work hard at widening that circle of countries who are going to push back,” he added. Senate Intelligence Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) concluded the hearing by noting that Burns enjoys a great amount of “positive approval” from the panel while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the committee’s vice chairman, praised Burns’s “lengthy and distinguished career” and expects to work with Burns “as a partner for the CIA’s work as our nation’s first line of defense.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved Burns yesterday, and the next step is a floor vote, which he is expected to win confirmation. Currently, Deputy Director David Cohen is serving as CIA’s acting director until Burns is confirmed.

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Brandon Osgood is a strategic communications and digital marketing professional based out of Raleigh, NC. Beyond being a passionate storyteller, Brandon is an avid classical musician with dreams of one day playing at Carnegie Hall. Interested in connecting? Email him at brosgood@outlook.com.