By Shane Harris,
The Senate confirmed William J. Burns as the next director of the CIA on Thursday, placing one of the country’s most experienced career diplomats in charge of the spy agency.
The chamber confirmed Burns by unanimous consent, an indication of broad bipartisan support.
Burns, who retired from the Foreign Service in 2014 after a three-decade career, will take over at the agency at a moment of high tension between the United States and Russia, where he once served as the U.S. ambassador.
Earlier this week, the U.S. intelligence community released a declassified report detailing Russian efforts to sow disinformation and propaganda ahead of the 2020 presidential election in an attempt to harm President Biden’s campaign.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials directed the effort, which included planting information aimed at smearing Biden with prominent individuals close to President Donald Trump, the intelligence agencies concluded. Though those people aren’t named, the report appears to reference Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and close adviser.
The CIA will also face mounting economic, military and intelligence challenges from China. U.S. officials are scheduled to meet with a high-level delegation from Beijing in Alaska this week.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Burns singled out China in particular.
“If confirmed, four crucial and interrelated priorities will shape my approach to leading CIA: China, technology, people and partnerships,” Burns said. He also noted that “predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test,” and described Russia, Iran and North Korea as the United States’ other most significant adversaries.
Current and former officials have said the CIA should return to its espionage roots and focus on gathering intelligence from nation-states, after nearly two decades of counterterrorism operations, which absorbed huge portions of the agency’s budgets and resources.
Burns’s confirmation was never in doubt. But it was delayed when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) placed a hold on his nomination to pressure the Biden administration over the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.
On Thursday, following a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterating U.S. opposition to the pipeline and warning that any entity involved in work on it risked U.S. sanctions, Cruz lifted his hold on Burns, as well as Brian P. McKeon, a Biden adviser and the president’s nominee to a senior State Department position.
The Senate confirmed both men by voice vote, an indication of support for Burns as well as the chamber’s desire to install him quickly. The Senate had already confirmed other top national security officials, including Avril Haines as the director of national intelligence.
“I applaud today’s unanimous confirmation of former Ambassador Burns to lead the Central Intelligence Agency,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “As our nation continues to face a growing and diverse set of threats around the globe, we must have experienced leaders in place who are ready to grapple with these risks head-on.”