The effusive praise that William Burns has received from former officials across the government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, does not sufficiently address the historic questions that surround his nomination to be Director of the CIA. Burns’ appointment presents pathways to professional, institutional, and organizational conflicts, suggesting that the comity that colored Burns’ relationship with the CIA and other Executive departments as a diplomat may not extend to his tenure at the CIA. Together, Burns and the CIA must overcome their formative pasts in order to change in the present and prepare for the future.
Much has been made of the fact that Burns would be the first career diplomat to lead the CIA. While Burns is no stranger to intelligence, he will still be a professional diplomat at a professional intelligence organization. Early CIA officers had to fight for the independence of their profession from military and diplomatic officers. The CIA has already had several directors who were career military officers and whose professional backgrounds caused frictions within the CIA, from Admiral Stansfield Turner aspiring to run the CIA like a ship to General David Petraeus requesting fresh pineapple before bed. Personal habits aside, placing a career diplomat at the head of the CIA can complicate civil-intelligence relations.
Burns’ job will no longer be to advocate policy as a diplomat, but rather to inform policy as an intelligence official. He must detach himself from his own policy preferences—no easy feat—and instead represent the collective analytical judgment of the CIA. The proximity of Burns and President Joe Biden on some policy issues, for example, the Iran nuclear deal, which Burns had a lead role in negotiating, poses the danger of intelligence politicization. Also, Burns could steer CIA operations and analysis to suit diplomatic purposes, raising tensions regarding the role of the CIA in the institutional balance of power in U.S. foreign policy.
Many observers believe that Burns will help restore the place of diplomacy in U.S. foreign policy through the instrument of the CIA. Some also celebrate this subordination of intelligence to diplomacy—and the prospective subordination of the military’s influence in U.S. foreign policy to the combination of the two. Aside from the first-order question of whether the CIA should be reduced to an adjunct of diplomacy, what obstacles will Burns encounter in tilting the CIA towards diplomacy? Burns’ nomination has received too much praise without enough scrutiny in this regard.
Bitter bureaucratic competition to control intelligence has been the norm in American history. The State and Defense Departments first opposed the CIA’s very existence, then tried to subordinate it to their own purposes. They have also used the CIA as a wedge against each other in a bureaucratic battle over U.S. foreign policy. The consensus seems to be that Burns will help “demilitarize” U.S. foreign policy by throwing the CIA behind diplomacy. But the CIA has its own interests at stake in this struggle.
One of the immediate decisions facing Burns will be whether to consummate the disunion of the DOD and CIA in the form of covert action and paramilitary operations in support of the aging war on terrorism. So far, the DOD spearheaded the effort to divest the CIA of some of its paramilitary resources and capabilities. The transition reflects the DOD’s goal of disengagement from the regions and missions associated with counterterrorism as the DOD transitions to the grave threats posed by competition with state adversaries, especially China. The CIA is only slowly and painfully coming to terms with the pivot away from counterterrorism.
Counterterrorism has been the coin of the realm for a generation. The CIA has gotten good at it—too good—at the expense of traditional espionage and analytic tradecraft. The CIA has reaped the bureaucratic rewards of its effective counterterrorism campaigns, both independently and alongside the DOD. Additionally, several former CIA officials have stridently argued for continued DOD-CIA cooperation in counterterrorism, presenting a hurdle for advocates of diplomacy who hope that Burns will navigate the CIA away from a militarized U.S. foreign policy. Even if Burns’ nomination is part of a grand design to reorient U.S. foreign policy, he faces the accompanying challenge of reorienting CIA organizational culture.
The allure of covert action and paramilitary operations that makes counterterrorism such an appealing mission to the CIA lies at the heart of an identity crisis that has burdened the CIA from the beginning. At the outset of the Cold War, policymakers wanted the CIA to conduct political warfare, requiring it to operate in the gray area that blurred the boundaries between war and peace. Organizational culture shifted away from the CIA’s statutory missions of coordination and analysis under the 1947 National Security Act toward covert action and paramilitary operations, a strand that has continued from the Cold War through the War on Terror.
Burns and the CIA could wrestle over the future direction of CIA organizational culture. The United States seems poised to enter a new era of political warfare, meaning that the CIA will once again sail toward this Siren’s song with policymakers urging it forward. But political warfare and diplomacy have actually worked at cross-purposes. Will Burns, a career diplomat, support CIA political warfare operations despite a legacy that still encumbers U.S. foreign policy to this day? Burns faces weighty choices that implicate intra-organizational tensions within the CIA and inter-institutional conflicts between intelligence and diplomacy.
The CIA must evolve to compete in the intelligence environment of the twenty-first century. China has effectively harnessed new technology like biometrics and big data to undermine the CIA’s human intelligence operations. From James Schlesinger to Stansfield Turner to R. James Woolsey, “outsider” directors who have tried to implement technological reform have been extremely unpopular in the CIA. To Burns’ advantage, he would not be investing in technology at the expense of human intelligence—a fateful flaw of those before him—but rather to its benefit. Former CIA case officers are even asking for technological reform. However, the issue goes beyond the technology itself to the key intelligence adversary employing it: China.
Burns’ background is in Russia and the Middle East, not China. Burns could guide the CIA based on his own diplomatic experience. Russia and the Middle East appeal to Burns’ personal history and to CIA organizational history stretching from the Cold War to the War on Terror. So, Burns’ regional comfort zones align with the CIA’s operational and organizational comfort zones. Politicization resurfaces as an issue. There were differences in how intelligence analysts assessed Chinese and Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election. CIA officials even attempted to suppress an alternative analysis of Chinese activities. How will Burns and the CIA prioritize, even perhaps politicize, intelligence adversaries? Based on their shared history, Burns and the CIA could fall back on more familiar issues associated with Russia and the Middle East, political warfare and paramilitary operations, rather than make the hard tradeoffs to adapt to the far tougher and more pressing intelligence challenge of China.
William Burns’ decades of experience handling extraordinarily sensitive, often secret, negotiations involving an array of actors with competing interests should serve him well at the CIA. After all, leadership of the CIA at this pivotal moment in time entails staggering decisions made all the more difficult by the complex interplay of historic forces. As Director of the CIA, Burns will need to muster all his diplomatic experience—and then be prepared to set it aside.
Jeff Rogg (@TheSpyTheState) is a postdoctoral fellow in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, Department of the Navy, or U.S. Naval War College.