A Profile of the CIA, Bill Burns


Walter Pincus is a senior contributing national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at the Washington Post writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics. In 2002, he and a team of mail correspondents won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reports. He also received an Emmy Award in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Prize from the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Opinion – Ambassador William J. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee as he contemplated his 33 years in the diplomatic service at his hearing last Wednesday to take over as director of the CIA, “I have learned that good intelligence, delivered honestly and impartially, is first.” In America the line of defense. I learned that intelligence professionals have to tell policymakers what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it. I learned that politics should stop where intelligence work begins. “

Diplomat Burns always added, “It was them [CIA officers’] Skill in collection and analysis often gave me an edge as a negotiator; Their partnership which helped make me an effective ambassador; Their opinions helped me make informed choices on the toughest policy issues. “

But Burns also showed his pragmatic view of this country in today’s world when he told senators, “The international landscape is changing rapidly. We are in a period of profound transformation. Perhaps the United States is no longer the only dominant player we were when I worked with the Secretary of State.” [of State James] Baker 30 years ago, but I’m still arguing that we have a better hand to play than our main competitors and that’s because of our ability to survive locally – and I know it’s been tested in recent years. But it is extremely important … it distinguishes us from authoritarian regimes around the world. “

Burns quickly added that the United States has “the ability to rely on allies and partners, which also distinguishes us from the more lonely powers such as China and Russia.”

On Russia, Burns said the Biden administration would present a new assessment based on recent Moscow activities along with the consequences they should have. As a former ambassador to Russia, he said that such responses should be taken “firmly and firmly”. As for relations while Russian President Vladimir Putin remains in power, Burns said he expects them to range from “a very fierce rivalry to a very bad rivalry.”

While most of the media coverage last week of Burns’ public testimony emphasized the top priority he gave to China, Russia and technology, it was in some of his written answers to the panel’s previous questions to hear that he dealt with the issues most relevant to agency employees.

For example, Burns was asked about the controversial reorganization of former CIA Director John Brennan, which grouped analysts and operators into ten, so-called “task centers”, each focusing on a specific part of the world (i.e. the Near East). Or, dealing with security threats (such as counter-terrorism, proliferation).

Brennan said Brennan’s goal was “to focus on improving integration across the CIA,” adding, “My sense is that this integration of analysts and operators within task centers provides the advantage of national security decision-making for our policymakers and faster cooperation on challenging issues. Managers must at all.” The levels continue to ensure that this integration reinforces analytical objectivity. “

Asked whether the CIA should continue as the Director of National Human Intelligence (HUMINT) for the Intelligence Community (IC), Burns replied, “It has become more important than ever” for DCIA to direct this functional community of covert HUMINT collectors. And the frank.

Burns noted that 13 different US government agencies and organizations collect intelligence, but “the CIA is the only organization focused on HUMINT as a function and has developed a broad basis of operational, technical and analytical expertise on which to build and lead the HUMINT Foundation.” As the director of HUMINT, he said that CIA “ensures the standardization of craftsmanship, assembly standards, and operational activity of the US government by sharing best practices and technologies”, as well as integrating and unconflicting all HUMINT efforts by the IC.

Burns noted that the CIA and elements of the Department of Defense, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security have their own covert and overt HUMINT groups, adding, “The world of a HUMINT executor’s behavior may affect someone else’s operations., Making coordination of activity critical.” At the same time, the United States government is benefiting from an adequate surplus in its ability to collect. This overlap ensures that the opponent cannot exploit any layers of the IC. “

Burns said that sharing lessons learned and best practices in craftsmanship and technology use “will not only enhance the capabilities of the IC as a whole, but will also enable the IC to focus the” best athlete “against” the right process “as closely as possible. The knowledge available to ensure success.”

As the director of HUMINT, CIA also assesses smart consumer satisfaction with the HUMINT Foundation, so that if changes are needed, they can be achieved by all HUMINT implementers.

The question has also been raised about the CIA in paramilitary actions, and how its operations should be distinguished from those of the US Special Operations Forces (SOF). Certainly, since the Vietnam War, the agency’s operations have increased, although I remember the late Richard Helms complaining that as a secret service, the CIA should not undertake such detectable military activities.

Last December, Christopher Miller, then acting secretary of defense and former Special Forces officer, was reportedly weighing an end to the Pentagon’s support for counterterrorism and CIA paramilitary missions.

Burns gave an accurate answer.

He said, “I would suggest that“ paramilitary actions ”should not be seen as a separate category of operations, but rather as a method by which these two broader missions can be accomplished. [covert action and foreign intelligence collection against hard targets] Attainable, with increasing attention paid to aligning more of the CIA’s collecting capabilities against our more strategic and challenging objectives. ”

Burns added that while there are similarities, “their legal powers and goals are different. The Department of Defense uses Special Operations Forces (SOF) to implement a military strategy, as the CIA uses its privileged powers in its covert mission.”

In response to a question whether the CIA should “stop intelligence activities including but not limited to communication relationships [with local country intelligence or military] That did not obtain the approval of the head of the mission [the U.S. Ambassador]Burns said that CIA station chiefs “are required to keep heads of mission fully and current” about all CIA programs and activities with one exception: when the president or secretary of state grants special approval for the CIA.

Burns said that in the event that the CIA station chief disagreed with the ambassador over intelligence activity, the matter “should be referred back to the CIA and State Department for resolution.”

Another series of questions dealt with correcting the record when intelligence information was accidentally announced by senior officials or if that official provided information that contradicted the intelligence information they had received, Burns said, “If I learn that a senior management made a policy official or their spokesperson made a public statement. I later learned that it was not supported or contradicted by the available intelligence, and I will consult with this official and suggest ways to correct the public record unless doing so would risk revealing sources and methods. “

He said that if Burns or any other CIA official said something publicly inaccurate, I would take action to correct the public record unless it risked revealing the sources and methods. To the extent that the wrong statement is presented to Congress, I will take appropriate steps to inform Congress of the correction. “

During the hearing, Burns was asked to commit himself to continuing the Obama administration’s policy of not taking action against any CIA personnel who had participated in the George W. Bush administration’s terrorist arrest and harsh interrogation programs. Burns replied, “You have my obligation not to take action or compromise the careers of officers who may have worked in those programs in the past when they were working under the Department of Justice guidelines and under the direction of the President, yes sir.”

He also said that he believed that some of the methods used by CIA personnel, such as waterboarding, were torture and that the agency today is prohibited from operating detention facilities other than detaining people on a temporary, short-term basis. On another issue related to the Bush era, Burns agreed that CIA officers “should not participate in interrogating detainees if the CIA receives reliable information that detainees in contact custody have been tortured or ill-treated.”

Toward the end of the session, in response to a question, Burns suggested that the CIA, as direct crises may appear, should sometimes be able to look into the horizon a bit.

He picked the space where, he said, “Our adversaries are working overtime to develop capabilities that could threaten critical US infrastructure and a lot of other things of interest to us. It’s also an area where there are really no international rules of the road at the moment – whether in terms of trade, security, or whatever. another thing “.

Burns continued, “The CIA should focus on issues like this to be able to highlight the growing threat to US interests and then try to think creatively to support policymakers on how to anticipate these threats and start planning today how best to deal with them.”

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