Burns retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 and is currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C.
CIA director is perhaps the most high-profile post Biden had yet to fill after weeks of rolling out Cabinet picks and other administration appointments. The choice ultimately proved to be one of the toughest the president-elect faced as he put together his national security and foreign policy teams.
Burns now joins that built-out roster of Biden nominees, which includes Antony Blinken as secretary of State, Lloyd Austin as secretary of Defense, Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of Homeland Security and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence nominee.
In a transition team statement on Monday, Biden described the CIA director-designate as “an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure.”
Burns “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical and that the dedicated intelligence professionals serving our nation deserve our gratitude and respect,” Biden said.
“Ambassador Burns will bring the knowledge, judgment, and perspective we need to prevent and confront threats before they can reach our shores,” he added. “The American people will sleep soundly with him as our next CIA Director.”
Burns’ selection means a career foreign service officer — not a career intelligence official such as current CIA Director Gina Haspel — will be assuming the top job at Langley, and it underscores Biden’s commitment to rebuilding international alliances that deteriorated under outgoing President Donald Trump’s administration.
The CIA had found itself uncomfortably embroiled in domestic politics under Trump, accused by the president and his allies of seeking to tar him as an agent of Moscow and representing a “deep state” bent on undermining his policies.
The agency’s work is likely to fly much further under the radar in Biden’s administration. The president-elect is unlikely to break publicly with his CIA director or attack him on social media, as Trump did repeatedly during his presidency.
The CIA remains the heavyweight among the country’s 17 spy agencies, and its employees often chafe at the somewhat amorphous oversight role of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is set to be run by Haines.
Two former CIA officers who spoke to POLITICO this week expressed concern that ODNI will become more empowered under Haines, resulting in the CIA losing some of its independence. Haines’ views were considered as Biden weighed options for CIA chief, according to two people close to the process.
As CIA director, Burns will face an emboldened Russia and an increasingly aggressive China, as well as transnational threats such as climate change and pandemics which Biden has placed at the center of his national security agenda.
Burns will also be expected to help rebuild morale at the agency, where analysts — particularly inside CIA’s Russia House — have seen their work politicized by the president over the last four years.
Fewer and fewer intelligence products concerning Russia were making their way to the White House by the fall of this year, as senior CIA officials sought to avoid angering the president.
Trump remains extraordinarily sensitive around the subject of Russian interference, and has repeatedly and publicly railed against the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in 2016 to bolster his candidacy.
But it is unlikely that Burns will need to tiptoe around certain intelligence findings with Biden. Unlike Trump — who was interested in intelligence only insofar as he could wield it as a political cudgel — the president-elect has long seen the intelligence community’s work as inherently valuable, Blinken said in an interview earlier this year.
“He said he felt so connected to what was going on around the world thanks to the PDB, and that losing that connection felt like a real void,” Blinken said, referring to the classified briefing provided daily to the president, vice president and other senior officials.
“I think that is evidence of the basic value he placed on the work of the intelligence community, because the PDB is of course their most important product,” he added.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who served from 2013-2017 and is now one of Trump’s fiercest critics, cautioned that Biden was not simply a rubber stamp when it came to the intelligence community’s conclusions.
Brennan’s book, “Undaunted,” outlines some disagreements he had with then-Vice President Biden on issues including the Osama bin Laden raid and the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
“I remember [former DNI] Jim Clapper and myself would be in NSC meetings in the Situation Room, and we knew we’d be the skunk at the party because we would be presenting intelligence that might be at odds with the prevailing view,” Brennan wrote.
“I was questioned on it, challenged on it, and rightly so,” he wrote. “But I never felt that they didn’t want to hear it.”