Can Burns Change the CIA?

by | Jan 13, 2021


In nominating former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns to be CIA director, President-elect Joe Biden has chosen a highly experienced diplomat to lead a hydra-headed agency.

But, if past is precedent, the highest hydras who head calcified fiefdoms at CIA can be expected to resist any real control from the top. They are more likely to try to co-opt top management or make end runs around it. This is not new.

Most senior CIA operations officers, in particular, have never been comfortable with meaningful supervision, lest it lead to reining them in or impinging on their ample budgets. With secrecy always in play (including strict application of the “need-to-know” principle), Burns will need a good deputy — preferably a strong outsider — to avoid being blind-sided — or diddled.

Burns lacks proven experience managing organizations as large and variegated as the agency, so the jury is out on whether he will be able to do it.

One endemic challenge is to ensure that substantive intelligence analysis is not tainted by CIA’s operations. In recent years, analysts have been thrown together with operations officers, making it very difficult for analysts to maintain the distance needed to evaluate objectively the efficacy of policies and actions in which operations colleagues close by are fully engaged.

A Far Cry From Truman’s Vision

President Harry S. Truman wanted a CIA to which he could turn to get unbiased reporting — “without treatment” is the way he put it. He became very critical of what he saw the CIA become.

Exactly one month after John Kennedy was assassinated, the Washington Post published an op-ed titled “Limit CIA Role to Intelligence.” The first sentence of that op-ed on Dec. 22, 1963, read, “I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency.”

The op-ed author was Truman himself, who spearheaded the establishment of the CIA right after World War II to better coordinate US intelligence gathering. [Full text of Truman piece.]

But the spy agency had lurched off in what Truman thought were troubling directions. And not only Truman. Sadly, the concerns expressed in that op-ed — namely that he had inadvertently helped create a Frankenstein monster — are as valid today as they were in late 1963, if not more so.

CIA’s focus had by then become a far cry, in Truman’s words, from “the original reason why I thought it necessary to organize this Agency … and what I expected it to do.” It was “charged with the collection of all intelligence reports from every available source, and to have those reports reach me as President without Department ‘treatment’ or interpretations.”

As the agency’s operational side accumulates more and more funding and is more and more drawn into paramilitary operations, drone targeting and the like, Burns faces a formidable challenge to gain control of it.

He will need to pry CIA analysts away from their roles supporting (and instinctively rooting for) those operations, and create enough distance for them to objectively weigh the efficacy and the wider fallout and implications. This would help move the agency back on track after decades of politicization — and at times, prevarication.


Burns can be counted on to help Biden resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal — the more so, since Burns played a key role in getting the negotiations with Iran started. He has argued that the nuclear deal from which President Donald Trump withdrew makes the whole region safer, including Israel.

Burns knows better than most that he has an important National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear posture to cite as a model of the kind of painstaking, serious analysis that can help prevent unnecessary war.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney bemoaned the fact that that particular NIE, published in November 2007, did much to spike their plans for an attack on Iran during their last year in office. The Estimate stated unanimously, with high confidence, that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon at the end of 2003 and had not resumed it. That judgment has been reasserted in the years since.

Intelligence Without Fear or Favor

Biden said Monday that Burns “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical …”. There are some early hints that Burns has the substantive depth, skill, and courage to ensure that this happens in the ranks of agency analysts.

What we know of Burns’s performance — particularly as ambassador to Russia (2005-2008) — suggests that he will shy away from fudging things and, in turn, encourage substantive analysts to follow his example and speak candidly to superiors. Former senior State Department officials I contacted on Monday share this view.

From Moscow With Candor: Burns a Straight Shooter

Despite then Secretary of State James Baker’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev in early Feb. 1990 that NATO would not move “one inch” east from the borders of a reunited Germany, by early 2008, NATO had already added ten new members: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. NATO relations with Russia plummeted and there was no sign Washington policymakers gave a damn.

Amid rumors that Ukraine and Georgia would soon be in queue for NATO membership, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Feb. 1, 2008 called in Ambassador Burns to read him the riot act.

The subject line of Burns’s CONFIDENTIAL cable #182 of Feb. 1, in which he reported Lavrov’s remarks to Washington, shows that Burns played it straight, choosing not to mince his own or Lavrov’s words: “Nyet means nyet: Russia’s NATO enlargement redlines,” he wrote. (This embassy Moscow cable is among those leaked by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks. It has been largely ignored in Western media.)

Burns wrote:

“Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan at the [upcoming] Bucharest summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains an emotional and neuralgic issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene. …” [Emphasis added.]

It took some courage to tell then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Russia is entitled to have “strategic policy considerations” and that Moscow might have to decide to intervene.

So, it is not as though Secretary Rice and other US policymakers were not warned, in very specific terms, of Russia’s redline on Ukrainian membership in NATO.

Nevertheless, on April 3, 2008, the final declaration at a NATO summit in Bucharest asserted: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

Shortly before Lavrov called Burns onto the carpet, former Sen. Bill Bradley, a longtime expert on Russia and a sober-minded policy analyst, said he was deeply troubled at the relentless expansion of NATO.

In a Jan. 23, 2008 talk before the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, he sounded a disconsolate note, describing NATO expansion a “terribly sad thing … a blunder of monumental proportions… .“ As tensions increased with Russia, Bradley added, “Right now we are confronted with something that could have easily been avoided.”

It’s a safe bet that Burns was similarly troubled. That he expressed this clearly — however diplomatically — sets him off from mealy-mouthed ambassadors.

The Ukraine Coup

Six years later, on Feb. 22, 2014, the US-pushed a putsch in Ukraine.

Russia’s reaction was predictable – actually pretty much predicted (if anyone read Burns’s cable) by the Russians themselves — and should have come as no surprise to Washington.

But for Western media the Ukrainian story begins on Feb. 23, 2014, when Putin and his advisers decided to move quickly to thwart NATO’s designs on Ukraine and take back Crimea where Russia’s only warm-water naval base has been located since the days of Catherine the Great.

US officials (and The New York Times) have made it a practice to white-out the coup d’etat in Kiev and to begin recent European history with Russia’s immediate reaction, thus the relentless presentation of these events as simply “Russian aggression,” as if Russia instigated the crisis, not the US

“F___ the EU” (and Russia too)

Thus far the words of then Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland seemed intent on giving a new dimension to the proverbial “cookie-pushing” role of US diplomats.

Recall the photo showing Nuland, in a metaphor of over-reach, as she reached deep into a large plastic bag to give anti-government demonstrators on the square cookies before the putsch.

More important, recall her amateurish, boorish use of an open telephone to plot regime change in Ukraine with a fellow neocon, then US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt. Crass US interference in Ukrainian affairs can be heard) in an intercepted conversation posted on YouTube on Feb. 4, 2014 — 18 days before the coup, in which she says Biden would play a central role in installing the coup government.

Nuland is reportedly Biden’s choice for undersecretary of state for political affairs. Her foul tongue is not likely to derail her nomination; neither will her role in orchestrating the coup. If she is confirmed, it is a safe bet she will seek other capitals in which to peddle cookies. How will Burns respond when she asks for the support of his people to help nail things down — as in Kiev in 2014?

A Good Listener

My State Department alumni contacts tell me the soft-spoken Burns has a good reputation and is an intent listener. I had a chance to observe that up close when I took part in a Carnegie Endowment-sponsored briefing by James Clapper, during the Q and A which Burns moderated. Burns is the president of the endowment. Clapper was hawking his memoir.

Clapper had been in charge of satellite imagery analysis before the March 2003 attack on Iraq so I asked him how it could be that no weapons of mass destruction were found. The answer was right there in his book. Clapper wrote: “The blame is due to intelligence officers, including me, who were so eager to help [the administration make war on Iraq] that we found what wasn’t really there.” [Emphasis added.]

Burns did not use his position as moderator to rise to the rescue of Clapper and cut off the dialogue, but rather allowed the two of us to debate for several minutes.


Those who remember the optimism I expressed 12 years ago when Leon Panetta was nominated to head the CIA can add a pinch of salt to my positive, but guarded expectations for William Burns as CIA director.

I wrote:

“In choosing Leon Panetta to take charge of the CIA, President-elect Barak Obama has shown he is determined to put an abrupt end to the lawlessness and deceit with which the administration of George W. Bush has corrupted intelligence operations and analysis.”

By all appearances, Panetta fell in with the prevailing culture and became the agency’s lawyer rather than its leader. The hope is that William Burns will change the culture at CIA, and not be changed by it.

Reprinted with author’s permission from ConsortiumNews.


  • Ray McGovern

    Ray McGovern is a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer turned political activist. McGovern was a CIA analyst from 1963 to 1990, and in the 1980s chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared the President's Daily Brief. He received the Intelligence Commendation Medal at his retirement, returning it in 2006 to protest the CIA's involvement in torture. McGovern's post-retirement work includes commenting for Consortium News, RT, and Sputnik News, among other outlets, on intelligence and foreign policy issues. In 2003 he co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).