WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden's nominee to run the CIA told lawmakers Wednesday that he would keep politics out of the job and deliver “unvarnished” intelligence to politicians and policymakers even if they don't want to hear it.
William Burns told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing that “politics must stop where intelligence work begins.”
“That is exactly what President Biden expects of CIA. It was the first thing he told me when he asked me to take on this role," Burns said. “He said he wants the agency to give it to him straight and I pledged to do just that and to defend those who do the same.”
The comments from Burns appeared aimed at drawing a contrast with the prior administration, when President Donald Trump faced repeated accusations of politicizing intelligence while also publicly disputing the assessments of his own intelligence agencies, most notably about Russian election interference.
Burns, a former ambassador to Russia and Jordan who served at the State Department for more than 30 years under both Democratic and Republican presidents, is well-known in diplomatic circles and appears headed for a smooth confirmation.
Despite his decades of experience, he acknowledged that the diverse array of international threats — including from an ”aggressive" Russia, “hostile” Iran and “predatory Chinese leadership” — is different from what he encountered when he first entered government service and even from the years that immediately followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Burns said the “biggest geopolitical test" the country faces comes from China, which in recent years has staged elaborate influence operations inside the U.S. and carried out hacks with the purpose of stealing American intellectual property. Still, he said, there may be room for cooperation with Beijing in areas such as climate change and nuclear nonproliferation.
While Russia is in many ways a declining world power, the country remains a disruptive and potent threat, Burns said.
“As long as Vladimir Putin is the leader of Russia, we’re going to be operating within a pretty narrow band of possibilities from the very sharply competitive to the very nastily adversarial,” he said.
A recent hack of corporations and U.S. government agencies believed to have been the work of Russia laid bare the perils of underestimating the Kremlin and served as a “very harsh wake-up” call about the vulnerabilities of supply chains and critical infrastructure, Burns said. The Biden administration has said it plans to respond to those intrusions in weeks, rather than months.
“I think it’s essential for the CIA in particular to work even harder to develop our capabilities to help detect these kind of attacks when they come from external players from foreign players," Burns said.
On Iran, another persistent U.S. adversary, Burns said Tehran can never be trusted with a nuclear weapon.
Under questioning from Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, Burns stated that he believed waterboarding, a technique that was part of the CIA's interrogation and detention program for suspected terrorists captured after 9/11 amounted to “torture.”
He said he was determined that the practice would “never again" be used by the CIA but also said he did not believe the agency should take action against employees who used the tactic while operating under Justice Department guidelines and at the direction of the president.
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