Several days ago, President-elect Biden announced that he would tap veteran diplomat William Burns to head the Central Intelligence Agency under his new administration. The selection, though widely heralded as a sensible choice, is a bit of a surprise move. By selecting Burns, Biden is setting the tone for how he plans to utilize the intelligence apparatus and may signal some big changes for the CIA.

The first thing to recognize about Burns is that he is not an intelligence insider. In fact, he’s never served on that side of our government. That said, he’s no greenhorn.

Burns, 64, has logged over 30 years in the Department of State’s diplomatic corps. He entered the Foreign Service in the early 1980s and rose quietly through the ranks serving as executive secretary of state and special assistant to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. He served as U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005, and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. In 2008 he became the under secretary for political affairs and served in that role until rising to deputy secretary of state in 2011 where he served until 2014. He also served as national security advisor to then-Vice President Joe Biden, as director of policy planning at the State Department, and as deputy chief of staff to Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state.

But Burns’s resume doesn’t do justice to the central role he has played in shaping U.S. diplomacy over the past two decades. In 2001, Burns worked closely with then-CIA Director George Tenet — who has the distinction of being the second-longest-serving director in the agency’s history as well as having served two presidents (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) — to parley an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. He is credited with leading the push to eliminate Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan WMD program, resetting relations with Russia under Obama, and vitalizing the United States’ strategic alignment with India. 

Burns was also one half of the diplomatic duo that shepherded the secret bilateral conversations with Iran that led to the interim UN Security Council agreement, and ultimately, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The other half was Jake Sullivan.

Suffice it to say, Burns is a diplomatic heavyweight.

William Burns to Run CIA
WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 20: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns listens during his testimony during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the September 11th attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, on Capitol Hill, December 20, 2012 in Washington, DC. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had planned to testify at the hearing, but could not attend due to an illness. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

How Will Burns, a Seasoned Diplomat, Run the CIA?

His extensive experience in the State Department is what has led some to see his selection for director of the CIA as a harbinger of things to come. But exactly how he intends to manage America’s intelligence service, and how the CIA will operate within the Biden Administration — is still up for speculation. Nevertheless, Burns’s experience, when overlaid on the current geopolitical climate, might offer some insights.

Burns Could Reform the CIA

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency (D/CIA) is often thought of as America’s top spy. In truth, the D/CIA is more of an intelligence translator for the president and his cabinet. After all, it’s the D/CIA who is charged with deciding what intel should filter up and what should. Under the Trump administration, the current D/CIA, Gina Haspel, was elevated to a cabinet position, but the position did not formerly have direct access to policy-making. The idea was, at least prior to Haspel, that intelligence should remain a neutral tool at the disposal of the president’s policy-making team, not a part of it. Some have warned that a D/CIA would become invested in the policy and might surface (or suppress) information that would affect its success.