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The recent elevation of CIA Director William Burns to President Biden’s cabinet arrived with two assurances from the White House, via the agency’s longtime press mouthpiece, The Washington Post: first, that the move is “a victory for the CIA, which was among the agencies in the U.S. intelligence community that accurately forecast the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022,” and second, that it is “largely symbolic” and “will not give Burns any new authorities.”
So is the CIA’s promotion to cabinet-level authority nothing more than an elevated attaboy? “Burns is not expected to assume any policymaking responsibilities,” the Post dutifully clarified. “Nevertheless, the CIA has played a critical role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.”
The cabinet has typically included at least one intelligence chief—either the CIA director, director of national intelligence, or both—since the Reagan administration. No norms were broken or taboos violated in the promotion of Burns from the president’s statutory intelligence adviser to a member of his cabinet. But the decision still deserves more scrutiny than it has so far received, as the Post’s championing of the agency’s “critical role in shaping U.S. foreign policy” implies.
How successful has the CIA been lately? Well, two of the Biden administration’s biggest foreign policy blunders to date—the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the initial phase of the war in Ukraine—were based on spectacularly mistaken CIA analyses. In the first instance, the CIA informed Biden that the Afghan government would stand for at least six months without U.S. assistance; in the second, it predicted that Kyiv would fall to Russian invasion forces within 48 hours. The effort to spin the costly mistakes that followed as a “victory” is unconvincing, especially so close to election season. The failure of Ukraine’s much-heralded summer offensive against Russia, in which the CIA has played a large and largely unreported role, seems likely to stand as a third major misstep by the agency.
Moreover, the obvious truth that the CIA “has played a critical role in shaping U.S. foreign policy” is not a cause for celebration; it suggests a steady erosion of the foundational principles of analytical independence on which the CIA was founded. Rather than restore its mandate to provide unbiased intelligence and analysis to help decision-makers make policy choices, the CIA’s restoration to the cabinet seat likely portends a continuing slippage by the agency into a policymaking role—meaning that the CIA is increasingly responsible for delivering and shilling for a political product as a member of the president’s team.
The main reason given for Burns’ appointment to Biden’s cabinet—as a reward of sorts for the CIA’s wild successes during the invasion of Ukraine—is itself a transparent bit of political revisionism. The U.S. intelligence community indeed forecast Russian invasion plans with shocking accuracy in the weeks and months leading up to the war. But the CIA went all-in on the prediction that it would take Vladimir Putin no more than two days to neutralize Europe’s biggest country. This is hardly the kind of intelligence analysis that deserves to be publicly showcased and rewarded.
Worse, the CIA’s mistaken assessment of Ukraine’s “fighting spirit” led to the disastrous strategy of publicizing declassified intelligence on Russian war plans while making public preparations for a swift Russian victory. By advertising the accuracy of its signals and satellite intelligence while offering to extract Volodymyr Zelensky from Kyiv and repeatedly refusing his desperate requests for weapons, the Biden administration merely fed Putin’s delusional belief that Ukraine was “not a real country” and would be too weak and isolated to fight back.
Despite the startling failures of the CIA’s analysis and the resulting policy messes, the administration has decided to take a prolonged and unseemly victory lap, while hoping that its supporters won’t notice that it is naked from the waist down. The administration now claims that its publication of declassified intelligence robbed Putin of any potential “false flag” operations and helped build the Western coalition to support Ukraine. On the anniversary of the invasion, Politico obligingly published an oral history of the administration’s “frantic attempts to stop it,” featuring extensive interviews with Burns along with the secretary of state, national security adviser, White House spokesperson, National Security Council staff, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the directors of three other intelligence agencies. A similar attempt at rewriting recent history ran in The Washington Post last August, again with Burns’ participation, explaining how the administration “struggled to convince allies, and Zelensky, of [the] risk of invasion.”
To mark the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, according to two CIA officials who spoke to The New York Times, Burns gave a closed-door talk at Langley that “sought to exorcise the ghosts of the prewar intelligence failures that haunt the building to this day”:
Notably Mr. Burns added, “We’ve learned from that hard lesson.” The intelligence the agency and others collected on Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, he said, “stands as a powerful example of that. It enabled us to provide strong, resolute and confident warning, to help the Ukrainians defend themselves and to help the president cement a strong coalition.”
The oily Times report added that Burns, “a sort you could easily imagine in a John Le Carré novel whispering into a dignitary’s ear at an embassy party that the city is falling to the rebels and a boat will be waiting in the harbor at midnight … has helped restore America’s upper hand over Mr. Putin.” Yikes.
That Burns has conveyed the impression of implementing White House policy in his department and supporting that policy in public—an unusual if not unprecedented posture for a CIA director—is perhaps unsurprising. Burns spent his pre-agency career in the worlds of policy and diplomacy, where he developed a reputation as a brainy foreign policy guru and public servant of sterling integrity who nevertheless devoted more attention to the upper levels of his chain of command than to developing and motivating the bureaucracy he was charged with managing. During his break from public service during the Trump years, he often argued in writing against the Trump administration’s foreign policies and in favor of extending unconditional sanctions relief to Iran—a stance that recalls a host of legacy State Department pieties about anti-American foreign actors, such as Burns’ own earlier advocacy for unconditional engagement with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
In other words, unlike George H.W. Bush, Vernon Walters, Richard Helms, and Walter Bedell Smith—all of whom served as politically appointed ambassadors as well as director of the CIA—Burns has never bothered much with the pretense of being tight-lipped about policy. (In this way, he is more like former CIA chiefs Mike Pompeo and William Casey.) But unlike the State Department, which is expected to lobby the president on policy, the CIA’s intelligence reporting is meant to be “nonprescriptive” (i.e., it must not advocate policy or any executive action). When Burns told the Ditchley Foundation last month that “My job now is to help President Biden and senior policymakers understand and shape a world transformed” (emphasis added), he said the quiet part out loud.
It is therefore unlikely that Burns’ elevation to the cabinet has anything to do with enhancing the CIA’s prestige or making it easier for the agency to do its job. After all, the CIA’s power comes not from its “status” with the public or even in Washington at any given moment but from its unique resources and capacities, and the fact that it contributes more than any other agency to the president’s Daily Brief. Nor can Burns’ promotion have much to do with his auxiliary role as envoy: His trips to Kabul to meet with the Taliban in August 2021 and to Moscow to speak with Putin in November 2021 both ended in catastrophe. Nor can it be based on the agency’s analytical performance: Since the humiliations of Kabul and Kyiv, the United States has committed $75 billion of assistance to Ukraine at least partially on the back of U.S. intelligence predictions that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would likely succeed and that the army would not run out of gas.
Moving Burns into the cabinet should therefore be understood not as giving the CIA “a credibility boost,” as The New York Times put it, but as a further normalization of the agency’s emergent role as a policy actor. Sanctioning and highlighting the agency’s political role poses a danger to its longtime mission of providing the president with clear, unbiased information and analysis. It is also dangerous for the American public, which faces an increased risk from a powerful foreign intelligence bureaucracy that is being positioned as an actor within the domestic sphere.
Before 9/11, the CIA director could plausibly serve in the cabinet—as a representative from an outside agency providing data to the White House—without also assuming the more political role of serving on the president’s team. But while the formal ban on CIA involvement in domestic affairs remains, it has become all but empty of significance. The post-9/11 doctrine of interagency “intelligence sharing” and the formation of the now 18-member intelligence community means the CIA can and does hand off domestic intelligence it gathers and formulates to the FBI.
The CIA-led intelligence community remains wounded and publicly compromised, moreover, by the insistence of so many eminent former intelligence chiefs in the days before the 2020 election that the story of Hunter Biden’s laptop was a Russian information operation, and thus a legitimate cause for both social media censorship and a journalistic blackout. Burns was not complicit in this now-infamous episode, but neither has he attempted (or been allowed) to acknowledge or apologize for it.
If President Biden is in fact concerned with restoring the CIA’s credibility, he would do better to keep it outside his cabinet rather than brazenly welcoming it in.
Jeremy Stern is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine.
Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.