WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Monday tapped a former career diplomat in William Burns to lead the CIA as the Democrat raced to put a national security team in place days before his inauguration.
Burns, who speaks Arabic and Russian, was ambassador to Moscow from 2005 to 2008 and led secret talks that paved the way to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal under former Democratic President Barack Obama.
The Biden administration would be keen to revive the nuclear deal abandoned by Republican President Donald Trump and also to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for a cyber attack on U.S. government agencies last year. The Kremlin has denied responsibility.
Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for nearly five years, would also head an agency advising Biden on where he can cooperate with China and where to confront the world’s rising power.
“Bill Burns is an exemplary diplomat with decades of experience on the world stage keeping our people and our country safe and secure,” Biden said in a statement announcing Burns to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
Biden, who vowed as a candidate to pick a team of tested officials ready to serve on day one, is unlikely to have a full complement of national security officials when he takes office on Jan. 20 because of an unusually chaotic transfer of power. Trump contested Biden’s November election victory with false claims of voter fraud and delayed a normal transition.
Burns must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, where Biden’s fellow Democrats will soon have a narrow majority.
Burns has been confirmed by the Senate for five prior jobs over 33 years and navigated tricky politically perilous assignments such as heading the State Department’s Middle East division during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq without much personal controversy.
“Bill will bring fresh leadership to a CIA that has been marginalized during the Trump years,” said Sir John Sawers, former head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.
Democrats who will chair Congressional intelligence committees in the new Congress welcomed Burns’ nomination.
“As a career diplomat under Democratic and Republican presidents, he has established himself as a smart and tested public servant who is free from political interference,” said incoming Senate intelligence committee chair Mark Warner.
“I believe that our nation will be more secure and better prepared to confront the threats we face thanks to his service,” said House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff.
Still, a congressional source said Burns will likely face questions about Iran’s nuclear program and the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in which two American diplomats and two CIA contractors were killed. Burns was a senior State Department official at the time.
Biden has called on lawmakers to confirm his national security team as close to his inauguration as possible. Yet a push this week by congressional Democrats to impeach Trump over a violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 by his supporters could further delay action on the appointments.
Biden took months to settle on a CIA pick. One early contender, former Central Intelligence Agency deputy director Michael Morell, faced opposition for backing the use of drone strikes and torture following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Wilmington and Susan Heavey in Washington; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Arshad Mohammed and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool
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