U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to be director of the CIA, William Burns, told a Senate committee on Wednesday that he saw competition with China – and countering its “adversarial, predatory” leadership – as the key to U.S. national security.
Burns, 64, a former career diplomat who worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, is expected to easily win confirmation to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Burns 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.
Testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burns outlined 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.
“Out-competing China will be key to our national security in the days ahead,” Burns said at his confirmation hearing.
He called China “a formidable, authoritarian adversary,” that is strengthening its ability to steal intellectual property, repress its people, expand its reach and build influence within the United States.
Burns was introduced at the hearing by bipartisan foreign policy heavyweights – former Secretary of State James Baker and former CIA director Leon Panetta.
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 said “familiar” threats persist, including from Russia, North Korea and Iran. He also said climate change, global health issues and cyber threats pose great risks, and said “an adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.”
Burns noted that he often worked with the CIA during his years as a diplomat.
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’ 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, stressed 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,” Warner said.
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.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Mark Hosenball and Daphne Psaledakis, additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed; writing by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Mary Milliken and Sonya Hepinstall)
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