Biden elevates CIA director Bill Burns to Cabinet member

ASPEN, Colo. — President Biden has asked CIA Director William J. Burns to become a member of his Cabinet, reflecting the central role the veteran diplomat has taken carrying out the administration’s foreign policy and his key role as a messenger to Russia.

The move, which is largely symbolic, will not give Burns any new authorities. But it underscores the influence Burns has in the administration and will be read as a victory for the CIA, which was among the agencies in the U.S. intelligence community that accurately forecast the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“Bill has always given me clear, straightforward analysis that prioritizes the safety and security of the American people, reflecting the integral role the CIA plays in our national security decision-making at this critical time,” Biden said in a statement.

“Under his leadership,” Biden added, “the CIA is delivering a clear-eyed, long-term approach to our nation’s top national security challenges — from tackling Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine, to managing responsible competition with the People’s Republic of China, to addressing the opportunities and risks of emerging technology.”

Burns, who repeatedly stresses that he is not engaged in diplomacy, has nevertheless emerged as a sort of “secretary of hard problems,” U.S. officials have said. Since well before Russia invaded Ukraine, Burns has been the White House’s key interlocutor to Moscow, having had the most direct interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin of anyone in the administration.

Biden dispatched him to Moscow in November 2021 to warn the Russian leader that if he attacked Ukraine there would be significant consequences. Burns has also met with his Russian intelligence counterpart to warn the country against using nuclear weapons on the battlefield, and to lay out the consequences for doing so. And he has made several trips to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian leaders, who regard him as a trusted ally.

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“The President’s announcement today recognizes the essential contributions to national security the Central Intelligence Agency makes every day, and reflects his confidence in our work,” Burns said in a statement. “I am honored to serve in this role, representing the tremendous work of our intelligence officers.”

Burns will now join Cabinet meetings, alongside the secretaries of state and defense, as well as Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, with whom he works closely. Haines praised Burns’s “combination of expertise, experiences, talent, and intelligence” in a statement. But Burns is not expected to assume any policy-making responsibilities.

Nevertheless, the CIA has played a critical role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Burns personally delivered the warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine to senior U.S. officials, European allies and to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who had been skeptical that Putin would be bold enough to attack his country.

A month before the war began, Burns told Zelensky that Russia intended to make a lightning strike on Kyiv and decapitate the central government. Putin’s goal failed, thanks in part to the advance warning on Russian planning that the CIA and other intelligence agencies gave the Ukrainians, which helped them defend the capital, according to officials in Washington and Kyiv familiar with the matter.

Biden’s decision to elevate the CIA director to Cabinet status is something of an about-face. President Donald Trump made the director — then Mike Pompeo, followed by Gina Haspelpart of his Cabinet, but Biden initially chose not to, in part because the director of national intelligence already was a member and is the overall leader of the intelligence community.

“Most CIA directors have not been named to the Cabinet because most presidents have understood that the intelligence role is not a policy one,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer and author of “The President’s Book of Secrets,” a history of presidents and intelligence analysis. “Not that it matters much; modern presidents have not used Cabinets to seriously debate and formulate crucial policies.”

“That said, Bill Burns — as one of the most respected Foreign Service officers of his generation before becoming CIA director, and as one of the administration’s most important international messengers during this Russia-Ukraine war — seems better suited than previous CIA directors to join the Cabinet,” Priess added.

Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, has been one of the sharpest public critics of Putin, drawing on his experience with the Russian leader to analyze his motivations and occasionally needle him.

Speaking Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum, Burns said that Putin and the Russian leadership “appeared to be adrift” last month as mercenary leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin took over a military headquarters in southern Russia and then led an armed convoy toward Moscow.

Prigozhin’s “mutiny,” as Burns called it, exposed vulnerabilities in the top of Russian leadership and has left Putin weakened.

“For a lot of Russians watching this, used to this image of Putin as the arbiter of order, the question was, ‘Does the emperor have no clothes?’ or at least ‘Why is it taking so long for him to get dressed?’” Burns said.

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