© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns attends a meeting with Egyptian Interim President Adli Mansour at the El-Thadiya Presidential Palace in Cairo
By Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA director William Burns told a Senate committee on Wednesday that he considers competition with China – and its “controversial, predatory” leadership – to be the key to national security USA consider.
Burns, 64, a former professional diplomat who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, is expected to easily receive certification as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Burns has already been confirmed five times by the Senate for his posts as ambassador to Jordan and Russia and for three senior positions in the State Department.
Burns testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee, outlining his four top priorities – “People, Partnerships, China and Technology” – if confirmed as head of the agency, according to a US official familiar with the subject.
“Outperforming 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” strengthening its ability to steal intellectual property, suppress its population, expand its reach, and build influence within the United States.
Burns was featured at the hearing by non-partisan 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 government – and for members of Congress who want a tough line on Beijing. Russian aggression is a constant concern, especially US election participation and the recent SolarWinds hack that penetrated government agencies and accused US officials of hacking Russian hackers.
Burns said “familiar” threats persist, including from Russia, North Korea and Iran. He also said that climate change, global health problems and cyber threats pose great risks and that “a controversial, predatory Chinese leadership is our greatest geopolitical test”.
Burns noted that he had worked with the CIA many times during his years as a diplomat.
Part of that experience came in an area that could draw fire from Republicans. Burns and Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security advisor, had secret talks with Iran in 2013 that paved the way for the international nuclear deal that the Republicans blew up.
The Biden administration last week offered to sit down with the Iranians and other parties to the 2015 pact to see if there was a way to revert to the deal after Trump pulled out in 2018.
Burns’ arrival at the CIA would come after a difficult four years under former President Donald Trump, a Republican who often ignored the results of the espionage agencies, particularly the determination that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election for its chances of winning increase of the White House.
Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic chairman of the committee, emphasized this point in his opening speeches.
“I would like to hear your reaffirmation that the CIA officials – regardless of political pressure, whatever – always do the right thing and tell the truth to power,” Warner said.
With the support of many Senate Republicans and Democrats, Biden was able to deploy most of his national security team. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines all easily won approval.