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Biden's CIA pick tells Senate confronting China will be his top priority

The Trump administration was accused of trying to politicize intelligence. Burns pledged to present unbiased findings to Biden and other policymakers.
Image: Senate Intelligence Committee holds hearing on William Burns nomination to be CIA director on Capitol Hill in Washington
William Burns is seated to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency on Feb. 24, 2021.Tom Brenner / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's pick to become the next CIA director told senators Wednesday that confronting the threat from China will be his top priority, underscoring a bipartisan consensus that China has become a top national security focus.

If confirmed by the Senate, as seems likely, former Amb. William Burns would be the first career diplomat to lead the CIA, an agency with a paramilitary arm that has often butted heads with the State Department. But the CIA also cooperates regularly with State, and Burns worked closely with agency operators when he served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee Wednesday, Burns drew praise from both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

"I can't think of anybody that has the breadth of experience that you've had in the world," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, arguably the panel's most liberal member, said the session risked becoming "a full-fledged bouquet tossing contest," before praising Burns for his focus on human rights.

Burns was introduced to the committee by two foreign policy luminaries, former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta, a Democrat. Both men urged his confirmation.

After four years in which the Trump administration was accused of seeking to politicize intelligence, Burns pledged to present unvarnished, unbiased findings to the president and other top policymakers.

"I've known President Biden for almost a quarter of a century," Burns said. "When he told me…He expected me and CIA to deliver intelligence to him straight, I know that he meant it."

He later added that, as a longtime consumer of intelligence from the CIA, "what mattered most to me was that I get their honest judgment on issues, even when it might be inconvenient or unwelcome in some ways."

Image: Senate Intelligence Committee Hears Testimony From Nominee For CIA Director William J. Burns
Former CIA Director Leon Panetta speaks via video conference on behalf of William Burns at his confirmation hearing for CIA director on Feb. 24, 2021.Tom Brenner / Pool via Getty Images

On policy matters, Burns called China "the biggest geopolitical challenge that we face."

In that, he agreed with the ranking Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who said that "no challenge we face rivals the holistic threat posed by China, and more specifically the Chinese Communist Party. As we look to shift our emphasis from counterterrorism to threats from ascendant authoritarian nation states, the threat from China is the most existential to the United States."

Burns pledged to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious brain injuries suffered by American spies and diplomats overseas, dubbed "Havana Syndrome," because they were first noted in Cuba.

As NBC News was first to report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in December that the symptoms experienced by the American victims are consistent with the effects of directed microwave energy, and that Russia had done the most research on that technology. Previously, American officials told NBC News that Russia is the leading suspect in what they believed were attacks, but that hard evidence was scant.

"I do commit to you I will make it an extra high priority to get the bottom of who is responsibility for the attacks that you just described," Burns told Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, " and to insure that colleagues get the care that they deserve."

Burns, who speaks Arabic and Russian, said he did not believe Iran should ever be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. On the issue of the CIA's past treatment of al Qaeda detainees, he said he believed water boarding was torture and was illegal. But he also promised not to take administrative action against or impede the promotion of any CIA officer who participate in the interrogation program because it was sanctioned as legal at the time by since-repudiated Justice Department guidance.

Asked about his approach to Russia, Burns said, "There's no substitute for firmness and consistency in dealing with Putin's Russia."

As long Putin is in charge, Burns said, the U.S.-Russia relationship will range from "the very sharply competitive to the very nastily adversarial."