Op-Ed: Can a new spymaster turn around the embattled CIA?

The lobby of the CIA, where an employee sweeps the CIA logo on the floor with a broom.
William Burns, Joe Biden’s pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, will have to repair damage done in the Trump years.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Abused, insulted and threatened for four years by Donald Trump, who once compared the intelligence community to “Nazi Germany,” the Central Intelligence Agency has been an institution under great stress.

William Burns, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be the next CIA director, will take over an agency with an unfocused mission, low morale and attacks on its integrity. But despite not having worked at the agency, Burns’ deep foreign policy experience as a former ambassador to Russia and Jordan and his familiarity with national security issues should help him repair the damage.

The CIA has had plenty of failed directors. Yet it has often found the right directors at the right time. After the disastrous CIA-led invasion of the Bay of Pigs, John McCone helped President Kennedy handle the Cuban missile crisis, preventing the agency from being dismantled. President George H.W. Bush, who was the CIA director in 1976, and William Webster, the director in the late 1980s, helped the agency find its bearings after the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals.


But the most successful modern director was Leon Panetta, Barack Obama’s appointee, who turned the page on George W. Bush’s post-9/11 era of black sites and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Panetta was a CIA outsider, with little intelligence experience. But few could match his political shrewdness, honed as a longtime congressman and as President Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

Burns fits the Panetta mold. Like Panetta, Burns will have the ear of the president — a relationship of critical importance. The director commands an army of analysts, an air force of lethal drones, and a covert paramilitary force — but if he or she does not have the president’s confidence, the agency cannot carry out its mission.

“The CIA director has one protector and one customer and if you can’t get that relationship right then the agency is screwed,” says Robert Gates, a former director. James Woolsey, Clinton’s first CIA director, didn’t get along with the boss — and never met with Clinton alone. When, in a freak accident, a small plane crashed on the South Lawn of the White House, killing its pilot, Woolsey quipped: “That was me, trying to get a meeting with the president.” Burns, a longtime, trusted confidant of the president-elect, will not have that problem with Biden.

As important as access is being able to tell the president hard truths. Trump’s first CIA director, Michael R. Pompeo, rarely did that. In fact, he was a master at parroting Trumpian lies — including the false claim that Iran was in violation of the Iran nuclear agreement. As deputy secretary of State, Burns helped to negotiate that agreement, and will now have to try to resuscitate it.

Pompeo’s successor, Gina Haspel, the first woman to run the CIA, was often absent when called to testify publicly about things Trump didn’t want to hear. And she reportedly egged on Trump’s controversial decision, in January 2020, to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani with a lethal drone strike. Traditionally, CIA directors serve as “honest brokers” of intelligence and stay out of policy decisions. Burns, a career diplomat fluent in Russian and Arabic, knows how to deliver bad news, and Biden, unlike Trump, is likely to listen.

Burns will need all his diplomatic skills to reverse the politicization and damage done to the agency by Trump — including firing inspectors general, threatening whistleblowers with execution and installing partisan apparatchiks.

He should be forewarned that outsiders are not always welcomed with open arms at Langley. Insular and fiercely tribal, the CIA can devour new directors “like Scottish tribes waiting for the English king,” says Cofer Black, a legendary former operative. Yet Black and other former operatives are praising Burns’ appointment. “Bill knows how diplomacy and intelligence work together,” one of them told me. Burns is no stranger to the world of covert operations, having worked closely with the CIA’s station in Jordan, one of the agency’s busiest, during his stint as ambassador.

Still, a few tips may be in order. The new director should avoid bringing in his own deputies or advisors; previous directors who have done so have crashed and burned. Making special demands is also dangerous. On his first day as CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus succumbed to what one wag called “four-star general disease”; he ordered that his bananas be specially sliced. It took him months to recover from the ridicule.


Burns’ agenda will involve assessing the catastrophic cyber breach by Russia; stopping China’s intellectual property theft; shoring up defenses against terrorism; fixing outmoded technology; improving diversity in the CIA staff; addressing the quandaries of drone warfare; and strengthening whistleblower protections. Burns may even have to weigh in on whether to bar Trump from receiving classified briefings when he leaves office Jan. 20.

Panetta discovered that little things could make a difference even with jaded spies. He got rid of the fancy china in his office and poured his own coffee in a mug marked “CIA.” He told lousy jokes, and even brought his dog, a golden retriever, to lighten the mood at counterterrorism meetings. Burns, who has spent a career in diplomacy, surely knows the value of having a human touch.

Chris Whipple is the author most recently of “The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future.”