By Jeff Seldin
Another key piece of U.S. President Joe Biden’s team moved into place Thursday, with lawmakers in the Senate confirming former Ambassador William Burns to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Senators skipped a roll-call vote and approved Burns by unanimous consent, just hours after a hold on the nomination had been lifted.
Burns earned praise from both Democrats and Republicans following his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, with committee chairman Senator Mark Warner calling the bipartisan support a “testament to the nominee’s unquestioned qualifications.”
But Burns hit a roadblock earlier this month when Senator Ted Cruz put a hold on the nomination, citing objections to the Biden administration’s handling of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
Cruz lifted the hold Thursday after Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement warning countries participating in the Russian project risked U.S. sanctions.
With Thursday’s Senate confirmation, the 64-year-old Burns becomes the first career diplomat to lead to the U.S. spy agency.
Former intelligence officials have said he will have to quickly take on several challenges, including concerns about morale within the agency stemming from complaints that intelligence products were politicized under former President Donald Trump.
“Politics must stop where intelligence work begins,” Burns told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing last month, promising a return to the credo of “speaking truth to power.”
Biden “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,” Burns added.
As for external challenges, former officials and lawmakers have said Burns’ decades of experience as a diplomat, including stints in Russia and the Middle East, should serve him well.
Burns, though, told lawmakers his top priority will be countering China, telling lawmakers that Beijing’s “aggressive, undisguised ambition and assertiveness” is a “very sharp wake-up call.”
Burns has also warned the spy agency must be wary of underestimating Russia, Iran, and a host of other adversaries.
Former intelligence officials say the list is long.
“CIA cannot take its eye off the ball on terrorism, or the serious challenges presented by Russia and Iran,” Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff, told VOA. “It also needs to work with the broader IC [intelligence community] and its customers to determine the appropriate level of CIA support to the increasingly important challenges of global health, climate change, and cyber.”
“And, of course, this will have to take place in a period of, at best, zero growth in budget,” he added.