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Bill Burns, Biden's savvy choice for CIA Director

The veteran diplomat will tell Biden what he doesn’t want to hear, and that's a good thing. And refreshing.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The appointment of veteran U.S. diplomat William Burns, who served as ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary of state under President Obama, as the new CIA Director, or DCI,  is a welcome development. After long years of the corruption and politicization of American intelligence by American presidents and some DCIs, at long last we may see significant change with the appointment of a genuine foreign policy expert with integrity.

The DCI is often referred to as America’s “top spy,” but that is a James Bondsian misnomer, reflecting much popular ignorance about what intelligence and espionage are really all about. Espionage is the "easy part,” if you will, of the intelligence business. It’s all about acquiring specific "secrets" out there that countries around the world try to protect. The more crucial task is properly understanding the true strategic significance of the “secrets" acquired.

A savvy intelligence officer many years ago liked to distinguish between "Secrets" and “Mysteries" in the world of strategic intelligence. Secrets represent concrete specifics or facts that countries try to collect from rivals. They generally fall into the realm of tactical intelligence, that is, specific, narrow information about potential opponents.
This is especially true in the military sphere where military planners want to know just what kind of weapons and technical capabilities their rivals possess. This kind of intelligence information in one sense is fairly “stealable” — like concrete classified planning documents, technical characteristics of missiles, or location of strategic military production units. Penetrating foreign terrorist organizations to learn their plans is another form of stealing. Such information often has a limited shelf life before it becomes outdated. That is what the majority of CIA operations officers overseas mostly do.

Technical intelligence falls roughly into this same category: specific information gleaned by generally non-intrusive technical means such as communications intercepts and satellite photography.

The second, and much more complex kind of intelligence — often called "finished intelligence” — is what is delivered to the president's door. This is where the "mysteries" come in. Such reports provide the best analytical assessments or forecasts (guesses) of what events in another country mean and how they might unfold in the future. It involves gleaning foreign leaders' intentions and mind-sets — more strategic than tactical in nature. Intelligence officers and technology can collect all the "facts" they want, but the ultimate question is, what do the facts ultimately mean?

This is where Burns' experience as a senior diplomat and policy maker comes in. Because, in strategic intelligence and forecasting, known "facts" are not enough. Mature, astute judgment based on experience needs to be brought to bear in looking at raw intelligence “facts."The facts are unlikely to give us a clear answer about how Kim Jong Un’s health might affect future Korean actions. What will happen in Iran after the Supreme Leader dies? How much support does Xi Jinping actually enjoy within the Chinese Communist Party as he directs China's strategic future? Is Israel likely to try to drag the United States into direct military conflict with Iran? Is the all-important alliance between Russia and China likely to prove durable over the longer-term? Is the European Union headed for break-up, or will it endure?  There is probably no document that the CIA can steal, no microphone hidden in any supreme leader's office, no reliable public opinion poll on how populations think of their authoritarian leaders that can answer these “mysteries."

When I was responsible for overseeing the drafting of such "National Estimates” at the CIA, sharp debate would often take place among analysts from the intelligence community – involving all other pertinent intelligence organizations in Washington — to try to give our best responses to these questions that usually lacked clear-cut answers. You can steal secrets, but you cannot steal the answers to Mysteries, no matter how good your intelligence operatives are.

The more complex the issue, the greater the role of one’s personal political instincts and savvy. That can make intelligence judgments highly controversial. Judgments on questions of the rise and fall of nations and leaders depend to some extent on how the analyst views the nature of international politics. The conclusions the intelligence community draws can become easily politicized and corrupted at the policy level if leaders don’t like the reports. In the case of the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq 2003, there was huge debate over whether or not Saddam Hussein had active WMD programs. The CIA firmly believed he did not. But in the end George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney exerted heavy pressure on CIA analysts and even on CIA Director Tenet to come up with the judgment that Bush wanted to hear — that Iraq could well possess nuclear, bio, and/or chemical weapons — thereby justifying the war he wanted to launch.

In the end, of course, these weapons turned out to be a figment of the imagination. It was all about the politics of the global wars that Bush sought to unleash in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the United States did not possess a CIA chief at that time with sufficient courage and integrity to tell Bush what he did not want to hear about alleged Iraqi WMD. Even so-called "hard facts" can be subject to differing interpretations depending on the context.

That William Burns has little to no experience in the spy business as such is probably not all that important. He can leave the spyware to more experienced deputies. But, as a widely experienced former top diplomat, he understands the importance of good intelligence and possesses a feel for “the way of the world." Burns is precisely the right man for that kind of demanding job. He has enough political gut “feel” to understand when to block ill-advised and overzealous intelligence operations and assessments.

In the end, the CIA does not make policy, and the CIA chief is not supposed to offer advice to the president about what to do. Such direct involvement makes the DCI part of the policy making process—and thereby invested in its success.
Burns will have the experience and wisdom to ask the right kinds of questions of his subordinates in order to satisfy himself about their judgments. He also has enough policy experience to know what kind of intelligence information is most vital for the policy maker.

Sadly, nearly all of the recent CIA Director appointments over several administrations have too often gone to people lacking that kind of comprehensive understanding of global politics and its implications, a “feel" for how the world tends to work, or the fortitude to stick to their guns in presenting unwelcome intelligence assessments to the president. 

Biden's choice of Burns for this job indicates he understands the nature of these foreign policy challenges, and is willing to appoint a director of sufficient knowledge, stature, and integrity to stand up to the president if need be rather than cater to the president’s whims.

This is an art, after all, not a science. A responsible and wise DCI like this is vital if the United States wishes to avoid more foolish and ill-conceived failing policies and military operations overseas. Biden has made a savvy choice.

William Burns (vasilis asvestas/Shutterstock)
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