The CIA Director Should Not be Part of the Policy Process

CIA director William Burns. Photo: CIA.

Presidents typically announce controversial personnel and policy decisions on a Friday to ensure that the Saturday papers, which are not widely read, are charged with informing the general public.  This was the case this past Friday, when President Joe Biden appointed CIA director William Burns to the Cabinet.  President Harry S. Truman, who created the CIA in 1947, favored the depoliticization of the agency and its directors, which is why he initially chose professional military officers to be the director of central intelligence.  No CIA director was appointed to the cabinet until the Reagan administration several decades later.

It is ironic that Biden chose Burns for the cabinet because I believe Burns was appointed to CIA in part to depoliticize the role of the director in the wake of the failed stewardship of CIA directors Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel in the Trump administration.  Too many CIA directors in the past were particularly bad choices because they were too close to partisan politics.  Such directors as George H.W. Bush (the Ford administration); William Casey (the Reagan administration); and Mike Pompeo (the Trump administration) were bad choices because of their partisan views.  As president, George H.W. Bush appointed Robert Gates to lead the CIA because Gates’ loyalty to the president (and the entire Bush family) could be assumed.  Barack Obama’s appointment of John Brennan was similarly flawed, and Brennan—like Gates—was more concerned with serving the White House than telling truth to power.

When George H.W. Bush was named director of the CIA in 1976, he asked President Gerald Ford to place him in the cabinet.  Ford rejected that request and, upon reflection, Bush agreed that it would have been an inappropriate move.  When Bush became president in 1989, he refused to give cabinet status to either William Webster or Bob Gates.

A strong and independent CIA director is essential to deal with White House pressures to ensure that intelligence assessments support policy.  The Carter administration scrutinized CIA director Stansfield Turner’s testimony on arms control because it wanted to make sure that Turner would tell the Congress that CIA’s monitoring of any strategic arms control agreement would be foolproof.  Vice President Dick Cheney made numerous trips to the CIA in the run-up to the Iraq War to make sure that CIA intelligence supported White House claims regarding Iraqi weapons of mass production.  Donald Trump relied on CIA director Pompeo to put pressure on the intelligence directorate to justify withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord.

These are important considerations regarding the policy role of CIA directors, which is why it was disconcerting to observe the mishandling and misunderstanding of the issue by the mainstream media, particularly by the New York Times.  On Saturday, Michael Shear’s article in the Times was headlined ”Biden Makes CIA Director Member of the Cabinet Again,” which incorrectly assumed that the CIA director was traditionally a member of the cabinet.  But the CIA is not a policy making institution, and presidents initially did not appoint intelligence directors to their cabinets.

President Ronald Reagan broke this important tradition in 1981, when he made CIA director William Casey a cabinet member.  Casey believed that cabinet status gave him a platform for shaping national security policy.  He took advantage of this appointment to shape or politicize the intelligence of the CIA and to manage the Iran-Contra operation.  In his important memoir, Secretary of State George Shultz stressed that he was aware that Casey and his deputy, Bob Gates, were shaping intelligence on the Soviet Union, so he discounted it.

President Donald Trump placed CIA directors Pompeo and Haspel in his cabinet, and Pompeo reliably tried to politicize intelligence on such sensitive policy issues as Iran.  In view of Haspel’s role in the sadistic CIA program of torture and abuse, it was particularly inexorable to place her in such an important institution.

William Burns is far and away the best CIA director in recent memory,  perhaps in the 75 years of its history, and clearly the national security heavyweight in the Biden administration.  Burns repeatedly denies that he is engaged in the diplomacy of the Biden administration, but he has taken on a substantive and significant policy role.  His numerous trips to key capitals belie his denials regarding diplomatic activism.  It is difficult to believe that he has not taken part in policy discussions, particularly in view of the limited experience and knowledge of the Biden national security team (Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is traveling to Tonga this week to open the U.S. embassy there).

In view of Burns’ extensive experience in sensitive diplomatic matters, it is reasonable to assume that he will be asked to contribute to discussions on sensitive policy issues.  Burns repeatedly states that he is not engaged in diplomacy, but he traveled to Kyiv and Moscow with warnings of last year’s Russian invasion.  And Burns, who conducted secret diplomacy with Iran on behalf of the Obama administration, traveled to Beijing for Biden to open lines of communication.  It is up to Burns to ensure that he isn’t tempted to somehow shape intelligence analysis to a particular policy.

This should have been one of the major lessons of the CIA’s intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, when the British intelligence chief wrote a secret memorandum for the British Prime Minister, charging that the White House and CIA director George Tenet were shaping U.S. intelligence to U.S. policy regarding weapons of mass destruction.  When the Soviet Union was heading toward dissolution in the 1980s, CIA director Casey and his deputy, Gates, “shaped” U.S. intelligence to paint a picture of a threatening Soviet Union in order to justify increased defense spending.  Gates, who was a weather vane for all of Casey’s hard-line views, finally acknowledged in his memoir that he watched Casey “on issue after issue, sit in meetings and present intelligence framed in terms of the policy he wanted pursued.”

Burns has a well-deserved reputation for integrity, but he could be tested by the Biden administration, particularly in an election year.

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