Biden’s C.I.A. Pick Warns of China and Russia at Amicable Confirmation Hearing

WASHINGTON — President Biden’s nominee to lead the C.I.A. pledged during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday to improve spying on China, warned of Russia’s ability to interfere with American affairs and promised to deliver apolitical intelligence to the White House, leaning on his long diplomatic experience to win over senators.

The nominee, William J. Burns, argued that China was an adversarial power and the intelligence community’s greatest geopolitical challenge. He called for investing more resources and personnel as well as technological innovation.

He also warned that even as a declining power, Russia has shown it can be disruptive. And he pledged to examine evidence about mysterious attacks that have left a number of C.I.A. officers with lingering ailments, making a commitment to a work force battered for years by former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Burns’s confirmation as C.I.A. director seems all but assured, with a large bipartisan majority of senators supporting him. A vote by the full Senate could come next week.

The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was far more of a coronation than a confrontational question-and-answer session, with more of the discussion focusing on foreign policy than intelligence matters, perhaps unsurprising given Mr. Burns’s experience as ambassador to Jordan and Russia, as well as the senior State Department positions he has held.

That deep experience and ability to clearly explain complex foreign policy challenges appealed to President Biden, according to current and former officials. Jake Sullivan, now the national security adviser, remembered that when he met Mr. Burns in December 2008, the veteran ambassador pulled out a small notecard and gave a round-the-world briefing on every major issue.

“It was one of the single most impressive displays of breadth and depth on substance that I have ever witnessed,” Mr. Sullivan said in an interview.

Mr. Sullivan, who worked with Mr. Burns on a variety of back-channel diplomatic efforts, said China was a significant challenge for intelligence agencies. Mr. Burns, he said, has guidance to put his best minds on the problem. “My basic marching orders to Bill will be: Give it to us straight,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Give us your best judgment on Beijing’s intentions, its capabilities.”

At the hearing, Mr. Burns described the Chinese government as adversarial and predatory.

“We have to buckle up for the long haul, I think, in competition with China,” he said. “This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms. This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious with technology and capable in economic terms as well.”

Mr. Burns said a bipartisan strategy to confront Beijing was possible, and indeed, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called on the intelligence agencies to shift resources toward China. Besides adding more China specialists and ensuring C.I.A. employees have strong Mandarin language skills, the China threat demonstrated the need to invest in new technology to help improve intelligence collection and analysis, Mr. Burns said.

A former ambassador to Moscow, Mr. Burns has deep experience studying Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin. While Mr. Burns repeatedly said Moscow’s power was ebbing, he highlighted ways that Russia could make trouble, including with cyberoperations like the SolarWinds hacking that allowed it to steal secrets from nine federal agencies.

“Putin’s Russia continues to demonstrate that declining powers can be just as disruptive as rising ones and can make use of asymmetrical tools, especially cybertools, to do that,” Mr. Burns said. “We can’t afford to underestimate them.”

Lawmakers also raised questions about ailments suffered by current and former C.I.A. officers as part of mysterious episodes that have befallen agency officers overseas. While some current and former agency officials have said Russia is the most likely perpetrator of those attacks, the C.I.A. leadership during the Trump administration said it lacked the evidence to draw conclusions.

Senators did not ask directly, at least in the open session, whether Mr. Burns thought Russia was responsible. And he did not offer any opinion.

But Mr. Burns pledged to examine the evidence and said he would “make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible” for the attacks.

Lawmakers did question whether all C.I.A. officers affected by the mysterious episodes had received proper treatment for traumatic brain injury. Mr. Burns said he would ensure that officers were treated at the National Institutes of Health and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior C.I.A. officer who was the victim of an unexplained attack while traveling in Russia, completed a treatment course this month at Walter Reed. After the hearing, Mr. Polymeropoulos wrote on Twitter that Mr. Burns would be “one of the most qualified directors in history.”

Throughout the hearing, Mr. Burns spoke about the importance of protecting C.I.A. officers and his experiences working with them over the years.

Mr. Burns is the only career diplomat to be tapped to lead the C.I.A. Former agency officials said that while his experience is as a consumer — not a creator — of intelligence, he knows the agency well.

“Our chiefs thought he was a terrific person to work for; he understood our role,” said George Tenet, a former C.I.A. director, who worked with Mr. Burns. “He understands the business of intelligence and what it can do.”

Though other geopolitical challenges were far less of a focus at the hearing, Mr. Burns also highlighted the threat of nuclear proliferation. Under questioning from Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, Mr. Burns said Iran should not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.

Some of the only tough questioning of Mr. Burns concerned his leadership of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the committee, asked about the think tank’s partnership with a Chinese foundation. Mr. Burns responded that the partnership had begun before he arrived and that he had ended it.

In answers to written questions from the Senate, Mr. Burns disclosed gifts he had received while at Carnegie. Most were bottles of wine from allied ambassadors. But he also disclosed that he participated in a group trip to the Super Bowl, paid for by the Saudi ambassador, raising questions about the propriety of accepting such a lavish gift from a country with a troubled human rights record.

While the timing of the gift was not disclosed on the Senate document, a person familiar with the trip said it occurred in February 2018, eight months before the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi sowed deep doubts about the Saudi government.

The intelligence community is expected to release as early as Thursday a declassified report about Mr. Khashoggi’s death and the culpability of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The C.I.A. concluded in 2018 that Prince Mohammed ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.

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