President Joe Biden‘s nominee to be director of the CIA, William Burns, is expected to sail through his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, with discussion largely focused on challenges from China and Russia and threats from international hacking networks.
Burns, 64, a former career diplomat who worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, has already been confirmed by the Senate five times for his stints as ambassador to Jordan and Russia and three senior positions at the State Department.
In his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burns was expected to outline his four top priorities – “people, partnerships, China and technology” – if he is confirmed to head the agency, according to a U.S. official familiar with the issue.
Competition with China is a top priority for the Biden administration – and for members of Congress, who want a tough line toward Beijing. Russian aggression is a constant concern, especially its involvement in U.S. elections and the recent SolarWinds hack that penetrated government agencies and that U.S. officials have blamed on Russian hackers.
Burns will also note that he often worked with the CIA during his years as a diplomat. “He understands the mission and knows the people. It means politics will stop where intelligence work begins,” the official said.
Some of that experience came in an area that could draw fire from Republicans. Burns and Jake Sullivan, who is now Biden‘s national security adviser, led secret talks with Iran in 2013 that helped pave the way for the international nuclear deal that has been blasted by Republicans.
The Biden administration offered last week to sit down with the Iranians and other parties to the 2015 pact to see if there is a way to return to the agreement, after Trump withdrew in 2018.
Burns’s arrival at the CIA would come after a difficult four years under former President Donald Trump, a Republican who frequently disregarded spy agencies’ findings, especially the determination that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election to boost his chances of winning the White House.
Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s Democratic chairman, will stress that point in his opening remarks.
“I would like to hear how you plan to reinforce the credo that – no matter the political pressure, no matter what – CIA’s officers will always do the right thing and speak truth to power,” he will ask Burns, according to his prepared remarks.
Biden has been able to get most of his national security team into place with support from many Senate Republicans as well as Democrats. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines all easily won confirmation.