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CIA Pick Burns Says Biden Wants ‘Straight’ Talk From Agency

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 2/24/2021 Peter Martin and Chris Strohm

(Bloomberg) -- William Burns, Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the CIA, said the president told him “to give it to him straight” on the agency’s intelligence findings, and he called China’s “adversarial, predatory leadership’ the biggest threat to the U.S.

“It was the first thing he told me when he asked me to take on this role,” Burns said of Biden at his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “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 reflect concerns over political pressures on the intelligence community under former President Donald Trump, who often derided it as part of a hostile “deep state.”

On issues facing the Central Intelligence Agency, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the committee’s top Republican, said the agency must explore new ways to counter China, whose goal he said “is to replace the United States as the world’s most powerful and influential nation.”

Burns, a veteran U.S. diplomat, concurred, saying “an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our greatest geopolitical test.”

“Out-competing China will be key to our national security in the decades ahead,” Burns said. “That will require a long-term, clear-eyed, bipartisan strategy, underpinned by domestic renewal and solid intelligence.”

Burns appeared headed for Senate confirmation. He faced no hostile questions from committee members, many of whom had met him over his years as a diplomat. Among Republican senators, Roy Blunt of Missouri said he supports the nomination, and John Cornyn of Texas praised Burns’s “breadth of experience.” Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon joked the hearing was at risk of becoming a “full-fledged bouquet-tossing contest.”

The committee was to meet with Burns behind closed doors on Wednesday afternoon to discuss classified matters.

Asked about Iran, Burns -- who conducted secret talks with the Islamic Republic that led to the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump abandoned -- said “it’s absolutely important for the United States to continue to do everything we can to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

On Russia, he said “there’s no substitute for firmness and consistency” in countering the damage that President Vladimir Putin’s government can do.

‘Belittled, Discounted’

Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s chairman, said in opening remarks that Burns must help restore the agency’s standing after four years when its expertise was “belittled and discounted.”

The agency’s next director should “reinforce the credo -- no matter the political pressure, no matter what -- that CIA’s officers will always do the right thing and speak truth to power,” the Virginia Democrat said.

Burns, 64, is currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served as deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama. He played a key role in the Obama administration’s secret outreach to Iran, which culminated in the 2015 nuclear agreement, together with Jake Sullivan, who’s now Biden’s national security director.

Burns joined the State Department in 1982. He served as ambassador to Russia during President George W. Bush’s tenure and has also been ambassador to Jordan. Burns later was under secretary of state for political affairs, before being appointed deputy secretary of state in 2011.

Although Burns’s resume shows no intelligence agency experience, he said after Biden chose him that “I developed enormous respect for my colleagues in the CIA. I served with them in hard places around the world.”

“Good intelligence is the first line of defense for America,” he said, promising the CIA will deliver it “without a hint of partisanship.”

(Updates with signs of support from lawmakers in seventh paragraph)

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