Bill Burns’s CIA and the Roads Not Taken

The spy agency’s new chief gets a second chance to tell truth to power.

William Joseph Burns is probably the most anticipated new CIA boss to arrive in Langley since, well, George Tenet in 1997.

The agency’s hardest core former operators have been gushing about Burns since President-elect Joe Biden tapped him in January to run the battered spy agency—an unusual toss of bouquets from the dark side to a career diplomat, to say the least.

“Amb. Burns is an inspired choice,” tweeted Douglas London, a former senior CIA operations official. “Not an intelligence practitioner but a sophisticated consumer with whom the CIA worked closely” on the Iran nuclear deal and Libya.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA operations officer who worked in the Middle East and against Russia, called Burns “a titan of the foreign policy world, very well respected overseas.” As ambassador to Russia and assistant secretary of state for the Middle East under George W. Bush, and deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama, Polymeropoulos said Burns “knows the intelligence community. Field officers really liked him.” London added that Burns “will have a voice with the President.”

That’s good. The question is how Burns will use it when the next great crisis presents itself, over China, Russia and/or Iran, as surely, they will. Will Burns buckle under White House political pressure, like, well, George Tenet did when the decision to invade Iraq was in the balance in 2002? Or like DCI Richard Helms, who played his cards so close to his vest on Vietnam that he might as well have had no cards at all, giving the game to the hawks?

Tenet and Helms were deeply respected inside the building and across Washington—until they weren’t. When the most momentous questions of their tenure landed on their desks, they failed to tell truth to power. They settled on political calculations, which preserved their viability with the White House but opened the door to foreign policy calamities memorialized on rows of white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery.

Bill Burns is so deeply regretful for his own lapses in regard to Iraq that there’s reason to believe he’ll stand up to any trigger-happy politicos lurking in the Biden administration. He called his 2019 memoir “a story of the road not taken…a story of forever wars from which we are still trying to disentangle ourselves, of the ways in which we accelerated the end of America’s moment in the Middle East and of our singular dominance of the wider international landscape.”

He heaps blame for Iraq on himself. “It’s a story of my own failure to do more to prevent a war that we did not need to fight,” he writes in The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal.

He and his State Department allies knew that a U.S. invasion of Iraq virtually alone, without the kind of 35-nation coalition President George H.W. Bush assembled to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait in 1990-1991, ”would prove to be a massive foreign policy blunder.

“We did not, however, argue frontally against the bipartisan policy of eventual regime change—a goal we had inherited from the Clinton administration—nor did we argue against the possible use of force much further down the road to achieve it,” Burns writes. “Instead, sensing the ideological zeal with which war drums were beating, we tried to slow the tempo and point debate in a less self-injurious direction.”

There would be no loud protests or resignations over principle for him. Burns and his team wrote a memo, instead, on a “Perfect Storm” in the offing, forecasting a typhoon of miscalculations that would shatter Iraq and strand U.S. forces in a hostile landscape spanning from Syria to Iran.

“What we did not do in ‘The Perfect Storm’ … was take a hard stand against war altogether, or make a passionate case for containment of Saddam as a long-term alternative to conflict. In the end, we pulled some punches, persuading ourselves that we’d never get a hearing for our concerns beyond the secretary if we simply threw ourselves on the track. Years later,” he writes, “that remains my biggest professional regret.”

Burns signaled during his confirmation process that honesty and transparency would be hallmarks of his tenure, a rare trait over recent decades of deception in the agency’s dealings with Congress and the public on issues like “enhanced interrogation techniques” on counterterrorism suspects. (“I believe the CIA’s former enhanced interrogation program included torture, which violates U.S. commitments and obligations,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.)

Yet in written responses to the panel’s questions, he gave himself some wiggle room on coming clean when he heard an administration official telling lies.

“If I became aware that a senior administration policy official or their spokesperson had made a public statement that I later learned was not supported by, or contradictory to, available intelligence, I would consult with that official and suggest ways to correct the public record unless doing so would risk disclosing sources and methods.”

And if the official objects? I have a feeling that Burns, who’s well familiar with the back door access to power in Washington, will find a way to flank an official bending intelligence to build a case for a military confrontation with, say, Iran. In the meantime, as an architect of the Iran nuclear deal, serving a president committed to getting it back on track, Burns needn’t worry much about hawks outside of QAnon-Republican circles getting much traction.

Burns made a similar commitment to truthiness if he or a CIA underling uttered a misleading statement.

“If I became aware that I or another CIA officer had made a public statement that I later learned was factually inaccurate, I would take action to correct the public record unless doing so would risk disclosing sources and methods. To the extent the erroneous statement was made to Congress, I would take appropriate steps to inform Congress about the correction,” he said.

That’s a good start. There’s many a reason for optimism about a new day at the CIA, especially after the battering it took under Trump and his minions. Burns may have never hoisted a cloak or dagger, but he arrives in Langley with the distinction of being a longtime consumer of CIA intelligence: He’s seen garbage, and he’s seen gold.

“I served alongside them in hard places around the world,” Burns told the intelligence committee. “It was their skill at collection and analysis that often gave me an edge as a negotiator; their partnership that helped make me an effective ambassador; and their insights that helped me make thoughtful choices on the most difficult policy issues.”

“Thoughtful choices” is a good standard. Acting on them is the hard part, and nobody knows that more now than Bill Burns.

This piece originally appeared in SpyTalk, the Substack edited by the author

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is a veteran National Security reporter and the founder of SpyTalk, the Substack where this article first appeared. He previously worked at Newsweek, The Washington Post, was the founding editor CQ/Homeland Security and has written for numerous publications. He was an Army Intelligence case office during the Vietnam War.