How to Question William Burns, Biden’s Pick to Head the CIA

Photograph Source: National Archives at College Park – Public Domain

President Joe Biden has nominated the most worthy director for the Central Intelligence Agency in decades—William Burns.  He should receive unanimous confirmation from the Senate intelligence committee and the full Senate itself, although there are several Republican troglodytes on the committee (e.g., Tom Cotton, James Risch, and Marco Rubio) who may think otherwise.  That shouldn’t cause a significant delay.

In view of the various foreign policy scandals and intelligence failures associated with the CIA, however, the committee should use the confirmation hearings to register Burns’ positions and gauge the possibility of reform.

The Senate intelligence committee has confirmed too many directors in the past who swiftly earned the ire and even condemnation of the committee.  If the committee were given a mulligan on former directors such as William Casey, James Woolsey, and Porter Goss, it might well have reversed its vote to confirm.  In virtually all previous confirmation hearings, moreover, there were virtually no probing questions on CIA transgressions or the purpose, role, and even necessity of the CIA in the post-Cold War world.  It is essential that the committee and the American public get some idea of Burns’ impressions on these important matters, particularly in view of his distinguished career and his thoughtful writings.

Covert Action

President Harry S. Truman did not create the CIA to conduct covert action, but under President Dwight D. Eisenhower—and nearly all of his successors—covert action became an important instrument in U.S. foreign policy.  Most of these covert actions have been strategic failures, starting with the coup in Iran in 1953 and including, most recently, the attempt to overthrow the Maduro government in Venezuela.  Along the way, there were attempts at assassination and regime change as well as human rights abuses and economic warfare that were not fully vetted by the Congress or the entire national security team.  As a distinguished foreign service officer and former deputy secretary of state, Burns should have trenchant views on the efficacy and morality of covert action, and how to manage this dangerously unregulated activity.

The Militarization of the CIA

President Truman wanted a central intelligence agency as a “center for keeping the President informed on what was going on in the world.”  But alongside the analytic and collection missions of the agency, we created a paramilitary organization that has become the more recognized face of the CIA.  It operates Drone aircraft in undeclared wars in Southwest Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Horn of Africa.  The committee should question the continuation of this function.

In view of the failure of the old models of military force in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is essential that the CIA deemphasize its support for the warfighter and concentrate on rebuilding an intelligence capability that has indulged too much failure.  The intelligence failures associated with 9/11, the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, Russian risk taking in Syria and Ukraine, and the current pandemic must be understood.  We need to get Burns’ views on restoring the capability for strategic intelligence at the CIA.


The Reagan and George W. Bush administrations manipulated the CIA to produce intelligence to justify unneeded military spending and an unnecessary war against Iraq, respectively.  The CIA was particularly involved in the run-up to the war, producing a phony intelligence estimate and a UN speech for Secretary of State Colin Powell several weeks before the start of the war.  The committee should obtain Burns’ affirmation that he will protect the objectivity of CIA’s analysis.

Oversight at the CIA

There will always be tension between an open democracy and a secret department of government.  As a result, we need oversight to ensure accountability and legal behavior on the part of all elements of the overgrown intelligence community.  Recent administrations, including Barack Obama’s, have compromised the role of the Inspector General (IG) at key national security departments, particularly the CIA under Leon Panetta.  Obama even stood by when CIA director John Brennan interfered with the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of the CIA’s sadistic program of torture and abuse, conducted in secret prisons.  We need a commitment from Burns to rebuild the Office of the Inspector General at the CIA and to lobby for a presidential appointment of an IG with stature and experience.

Publication Review

In addition to compromising internal oversight by the CIA’s IG and external oversight from the congressional intelligence committees, the CIA has misused the publications review system to censor the critical writings of former agency officials.  The government has a legitimate interest in protecting bonafide secrets, but the current review system is a form of censorship that exceeds legitimate national security boundaries.  I was told that I could not write about CIA director Gina Haspel’s involvement in the torture and abuse program, although I was quoting the president of the United States and the New York Times!

Our democracy requires openness and accountability.  Congressional inquiry and investigative journalism are essential.  Former agency officials as well as whistleblowers are central to this activity, and they should not be obstructed by a biased review process that violates the right of free speech.  The Senate intelligence committee must get a sense of Burns’ views on these issues as well as a commitment to reform the review system.  Currently, the CIA’s review system employs as many officials as it did in the 1970s when it reviewed 1,000 pages a year.  Several years ago, the Publications Review Board reviewed over 150,000 pages.

Finally, it is essential that the Senate intelligence committee probe Burns’ for his views of the CIA’s future.  What can be done to improve the production of strategic intelligence?  What is the proper role for covert action in the 21st century?  What can be done to improve oversight at the CIA and to ensure cooperation with congressional oversight?  Former CIA director Michael Hayden observed that the CIA must be willing to inform the public of its activities so “that the majority of the population believes what it is doing is acceptable.”  Former CIA director Stansfield Turner asked that “if you violate the fundamental principles of the United States in the name of defending them, what do you have left?”  William Burns should be asked to address these views, expressed by former directors.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for