The New CIA Director | Charles Duelfer

The New CIA Director

Ambassador William J. Burns is a great and timely choice to head the CIA. He will assure that the Administration has the intelligence collection and analysis for the critical security issues facing the United States. He is a long time diplomat, but not without knowledge of the CIA. He was Ambassador in Moscow and therefore close to his CIA counterpart. Russia will be a key issue and he can calibrate the Agency’s production and critically appraise the analytic products. And he can make sure the staff are addressing the right questions.

The same understanding of policy and process apply to the rest of the world (especially China). Burn’s experience as deputy Secretary of State invests him with long experience in consuming intelligence products (and approval of various collection activities). He knows when assessments are useful to policy decision-makers and if operations offer too much risk and not enough benefit.

Moreover, Burns has long experience in working with the national security team Biden has assembled. Whether you like the Iran deal or not, Burns certainly knows the players from his experience in the Obama administration. He knows foreign leaders first hand. He will be a tough consumer for the analysts who create profiles of foreign leaders–he knows them and the analysts don’t.

Can he run the Agency? He ran State Department as Deputy. Of course that’s quite different from many activities at CIA. For example, there are massive programs in science and technology and the newer digital world with no counterpart at State. But careful selection of his team should keep the CIA growing where it needs in these areas. Forward thinking staff and managers can be unleashed in an organization with improved morale. The sense of mission reportedly slumped in last administration. If the US is to leap ahead of competitors like China, it will need the agency to be inspired and amped up for a sustained period. This is not different from State Department.

Of course, Burns will face tough choices. What emphasis to give the “War of Terror”? Currently, the popular concern is domestic insurgency–how much of that is being pumped up by foreign actors? What to do about that? What to do about cyber? How to interface with private sector actors in new ways? The list is endless.

Burns has been around the national security world long enough to understand the value in sustaining expertise in areas that are not currently fashionable. Russian experts were out of favor for a long time, but the expertise is now needed. Corporate memory is valuable behind a vision for the future.

Burns is seen as a calm, extremely competent, diplomat. This should not be confused with softness. A colleague observed that transgressions would have consequences–perhaps without “sturm und drang”, but there would be costs, severe costs. In this vein, I would expect greater attention to “Moscow Rules”.

I had the opportunity to work with (and learn from) his father, then Army Brigadier General William F. Burns, when he was detailed to State Department as deputy assistant secretary for Politico-Military Affairs. He integrated diplomacy and military power to build national security in the Reagan Administration. (I only interacted with the younger Burns on limited occasions regarding Iraq when Bill headed the Middle East Bureau at State in 2001-2005.) In my opinion, there is every reason to believe he will bring the full capacity of the CIA to bear in the world that we now face–and maintain its apolitical stance. Such balance is all the more important today when all government assessments are scrutinized for political bias.

This may be the hardest and most important task. It requires staying hard-wired to the factual basis for statements and being explicit about uncertainties when making assessments. I had a non-trivial experience in sustaining (recreating) credibility in the CIA when presenting the factual outcome of the investigation into Saddam’s WMD programs in the midst of the 2004 presidential elections. To be trusted simultaneously by the White House and Congress, let alone our Allies, is a major challenge. Staying out of the public eye makes it easier. Staying clear of being used in someone else’s narrative is critical.

Bill Burns is great choice for Director.

This entry was posted in Allies, China, Cyber Threat, Elections, Intelligence, Iran, Russia, Uncategorized, WMD and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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