Biden's CIA pick William Burns warns of China and Russia at confirmation hearing

Mr William Burns argued that China was an adversarial power and the intelligence community's greatest geopolitical challenge.
Mr William Burns argued that China was an adversarial power and the intelligence community's greatest geopolitical challenge.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the CIA pledged during his confirmation hearing Wednesday (Feb 24) to improve spying on China, warned of Russia's ability to interfere with US affairs and promised to deliver apolitical intelligence to the White House, leaning on his long diplomatic experience to win over senators.

The nominee, Mr William Burns, argued that China was an adversarial power and the intelligence community's greatest geopolitical challenge. He called for investing more resources and personnel as well as technological innovation.

He also warned that even as a declining power, Russia has shown it can be disruptive. And he pledged to examine evidence about mysterious attacks that have left a number of CIA officers with lingering ailments, making a commitment to a workforce battered for years by former President Donald Trump.

Mr Burns' confirmation as CIA director seems all but assured, with a large bipartisan majority of senators supporting him. A vote by the full Senate could come next week.

The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was far more of a coronation than a confrontational question-and-answer session, with more of the discussion focusing on foreign policy than intelligence matters, perhaps unsurprising given Mr Burns' experience as ambassador to Jordan and Russia, as well as the senior State Department positions he has held.

That deep experience and ability to clearly explain complex foreign policy challenges appealed to Mr Biden, according to current and former officials.

Mr Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, remembered that when he met Mr Burns in December 2008, the veteran ambassador pulled out a small notecard and gave a round-the-world briefing on every major issue.

"It was one of the single most impressive displays of breadth and depth on substance that I have ever witnessed," Mr Sullivan said in an interview.

Mr Sullivan, who worked with Mr Burns on a variety of back-channel diplomatic efforts, said China was a significant challenge for intelligence agencies. Mr Burns, he said, has guidance to put his best minds on the problem.

"My basic marching orders to Bill will be: Give it to us straight," Mr Sullivan said. "Give us your best judgment on Beijing's intentions, its capabilities."

At the hearing, Mr Burns described the Chinese government as adversarial and predatory.

"We have to buckle up for the long haul, I think, in competition with China," he said. "This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms. This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious with technology and capable in economic terms as well."

Mr Burns said a bipartisan strategy to confront Beijing was possible, and indeed, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called on the intelligence agencies to shift resources toward China.

Mr Burns said the China threat demonstrates the need for investing in new technology to help improve intelligence collection and analysis, as well as adding more China specialists and ensuring CIA employees have strong Mandarin language skills.

A former ambassador to Moscow, Mr Burns has deep experience studying Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. While Mr Burns repeatedly said Moscow's power was ebbing, he highlighted ways that Russia could make trouble, including with cyberoperations like the SolarWinds hacking that allowed it to steal secrets from nine federal agencies.

"Putin's Russia continues to demonstrate that declining powers can be just as disruptive as rising ones and can make use of asymmetrical tools, especially cybertools, to do that," Mr Burns said. "We can't afford to underestimate them."

Lawmakers also raised questions about ailments suffered by current and former CIA officers as part of mysterious episodes that have befallen agency officers overseas. While some current and former agency officials have said Russia is the most likely perpetrator of those attacks, CIA leadership during the Trump administration said it lacked the evidence to draw conclusions.

Senators did not ask directly, at least in the open session, whether Mr Burns thought Russia was responsible. And he did not offer any opinion.

But Mr Burns pledged to examine the evidence and said he would "make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who's responsible" for the attacks.

Lawmakers did question whether all CIA officers affected by the mysterious episodes had received proper treatment for traumatic brain injury. Mr Burns said he would ensure that officers were treated at the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre.

Mr Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who was the victim of an unexplained attack while travelling in Russia, completed a treatment course this month at Walter Reed. After the hearing, Mr Polymeropoulos wrote on Twitter that Mr Burns would be "one of the most qualified directors in history."

Throughout the hearing, Mr Burns spoke about the importance of protecting CIA officers and his experiences working with them over the years. Mr Burns is the only career diplomat to be tapped to lead the CIA. Former agency officials said that while his experience is as a consumer - not a creator - of intelligence, he knows the agency well.

"Our chiefs thought he was a terrific person to work for; he understood our role," said Mr George Tenet, a former CIA director who worked with Mr Burns. "He understands the business of intelligence and what it can do."

Though other geopolitical challenges were far less of a focus at the hearing, Mr Burns also highlighted the threat of nuclear proliferation. Under questioning from Senator Tom Cotton, Mr Burns said Iran should not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.

One of the few tough questions Mr Burns faced concerned his leadership of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the committee, asked about the think tank's partnership with a Chinese foundation. Mr Burns responded that the partnership had begun before he arrived and that he had ended it.