SOUTH CAROLINA: President-elect Joe Biden’s pick of former US State Department career diplomat William Burns to head the CIA has drawn praise from current and former leaders of the spy agency.
Burns, 64 — who served as deputy secretary of state between 2011 and 2014, and is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — is the first professional diplomat to lead the CIA.
His appointment comes as the agency is in the midst of restructuring and transformation to deal with the challenges of the 21st century, according to several CIA officials.
Burns, who retired from the State Department in 2014 after 33 years of service, is fluent in Arabic and Russian.
His appointment was met with relief in Washington because of his stature as a longtime, respected diplomat, and because “he has got a worldview, understands history, has a vision and believes in team work,” Robert Richer, former associate deputy director of operations at the CIA, told Arab News.
“Burns is the right man for the job because he understands the big picture, whether it’s Russia, China, Iran or the Middle East.”
Richer was CIA station chief in Amman between 1998 and 2001 during Burns’ tenure as US ambassador to Jordan, and was in charge of Russian operations at the CIA when Burns was ambassador in Moscow.
As an incoming CIA director, Burns will be in charge of a newly launched mission to refocus the agency’s efforts to recruit a new generation of spies and talented professionals to meet its needs and address emerging threats. As part of its efforts to attract applicants, the CIA has revamped its website.
While technology has been a key tool that the agency has used effectively to collect intelligence and capture or kill its enemies, it “still needs human spies to understand intentions — something technology can’t do,” said Richer.
“You need to know what a particular entity is thinking, and naturally this doesn’t show up on a website or in conversations, so you need to have a human to understand and know intentions, or to influence some people not to do bad things.”
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the CIA saw an urgent need to recruit agents of Arab descent in order to deal with emerging terrorist threats.
Richer said he oversaw the recruitment of CIA officers who speak Pashto, Arabic, Chinese and Persian.
CIA officials said part of its new focus is to recruit more Arab-American agents who can speak Arabic and understand Arab culture and politics.
Bob Baer, a former CIA case officer who ran intelligence operations in the Arab world, told Arab News that under the Trump administration, the agency’s leaders were afraid to confront the White House or other government agencies.
Baer praised Burns as someone who has experience and international relationships, especially in the Arab world.
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