Biden turns to spy chief for tricky diplomatic missions

As the first career diplomat to run the CIA, director Bill Burns sometimes has to remind himself to stick to his role as US spy chief.

“I have to tell my colleagues around the White House situation room table to kick me under the table if I start to stray in the other direction,” Burns quipped to Stanford University students in late October, referring to the tension between supporting policy in his new role and making policy in his old one.

Yet nine months into his presidency, Joe Biden is using Burns for missions that blur the lines between diplomacy and intelligence — acting as a public emissary in a way that some say is unprecedented for a CIA chief.

Biden has twice turned to Burns for international overtures, the first time to meet the Taliban in Kabul to smooth the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan in August and last month to convey Biden’s concerns about Ukraine to President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. A potential Russian invasion of Ukraine is arguably Burns’s most pressing challenge: US officials believe Russia is preparing to launch an attack on its neighbour early in 2022 as it amasses up to 175,000 troops near the border.

“It’s always been traditional to send the CIA director to deliver messages outside the normal diplomatic channels, but director Burns elevates that in a way I am not sure anyone before him could or anyone after him will be able to,” Mark Warner, chair of the senate intelligence committee, said.

Warner said Burns, a 65-year old former ambassador to Jordan and Russia who developed a personal relationship with Putin and other key Russian officials was a “unique asset” for the administration. He could deliver “a certain gravitas in the messaging that you might not get from just a plain ambassador”. Burns also served as deputy secretary of state from 2011-14.

Others see risks in this approach: former senior officials joke that the administration already has several secretaries of state besides Antony Blinken. John Kerry, a former secretary of state, is Biden’s climate envoy. Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who were considered contenders to be top US diplomats, were given other senior roles in the administration.

“You know, I know it’s ambassador Burns but I kinda think of him as secretary Burns,” Biden himself once told a think-tank audience in 2017, describing him as a “really effective diplomat”.

Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, said Burns was perhaps “the best diplomat of our . . . era”.

“He’s your best player, there’s just no doubt about it, even though formally he has the job of CIA director.”

But McFaul added it raised “a delicate question” if your secretary of state was not the “elite diplomat” for certain aspects of policy. “The good news for the Biden administration is Bill Burns and secretary Blinken have worked closely for forever. There’s not some rivalry. But structurally, it’s odd . . . You don’t want the head of the CIA to be your main diplomat towards Russia. I think [sending Burns to Moscow] was very wise, but over time, I don’t think it would be good for the state department as an institution, or the NSC [National Security Council at the White House].”

The Biden administration sees the two Burns visits as distinct missions that were intended to be low profile and undertaken for specific reasons.

“The trips [to Kabul and to Moscow] had elements of both diplomacy and intelligence,” said a senior official, adding the administration expected the Moscow visit to become public but that it did not expect Burns to take on a regular role as public emissary for the president. “We sent Bill because it was the wisest course of action given those circumstances and he was uniquely well positioned to have that conversation. Everyone was consulted.”

Former senior CIA officials say agency directors and even station chiefs regularly meet presidents in private and one past incumbent, George Tenet, negotiated a 2001 Israeli-Palestinian truce.

A person familiar with the matter said it would not have been appropriate for Blinken to meet a Taliban leader as it could have conferred legitimacy on the Islamist insurgents. It was an “extraordinary situation” and the Burns mission was intended to convey a message rather than negotiate, the person said. The state department made public the visit by Burns only after Moscow tweeted a picture, and the CIA has never commented.

Burns, who in his 2019 memoir The Back Channel lamented the US’s over-reliance on military force at the expense of diplomacy, remains a fan of the state department. The person familiar with the matter added there was no tension in the relationship between Burns and Blinken, saying the pair spoke frequently, were “very fond of each other” and that Burns even recently visited the state department for consultations, an unusual outreach for a CIA director.

A US soldier points his gun towards an Afghan civilian at Kabul airport in August
The CIA under Burns’ watch has been criticised for not predicting the rapid collapse of the Afghanistan government once US troops withdrew © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty

Burns is spearheading a “transition” at the espionage agency two decades after it supercharged covert action programmes in the sprawling war on terror following the 9/11 attacks.

“The CIA needs to go back to its core mission of intelligence and not fighting wars clandestinely,” said McFaul, adding Burns was the “perfect transitional figure” to reorientate the CIA for an era of great-power competition with China.

Burns is prioritising the agency’s work on China, creating a new cross-agency team, spearheading a recruitment drive for Mandarin speakers and experts in the countries where Beijing wields special influence as well as cyber specialists.

Burns still attends a weekly counter-terrorism meeting, and intends to draw on that work for the new China mission, especially relevant in places where both issues loom large such as Africa.

“As we focus on China and other challenges we continue to address very real terrorism concerns,” said a CIA official. “We have built a strong capability over the last 20 years that remains crucial as we look ahead and the relationships formed as part of the counter-terrorism mission underpin our work with partners on other intelligence challenges.”

Burns has taken criticism over the rapid collapse of Afghanistan into Taliban hands, admitting events happened “even faster than any of us had anticipated”. He has argued classified intelligence assessments conveyed the “accelerating impact” that full US troop withdrawal would have on the collapsing political will of the Afghan leadership and military to resist the Taliban.

In another move seen as defending his workforce, he prioritised an investigation into the mysterious health effects that CIA officers first reported in 2016 as part of so-called Havana syndrome, meeting victims from day one and appointing a senior officer who helped find Osama bin Laden to head a team investigating its cause.

“There was an absolute sea change when Bill Burns took over,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a veteran former CIA field officer who ran clandestine operations and has suffered health problems. “This is the validation that we needed . . . I think he understands leadership.”

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