William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, testifies during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Russell Senate Office Building on February 24, 2021

William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, testifies during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Russell Senate Office Building on February 24, 2021 Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images

CIA Nominee Vows To Probe Mysterious Microwave Attacks

Longtime diplomat Bill Burns sailed through his confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

President Joe Biden’s pick for CIA director committed to investigate a series of mysterious illnesses suffered by CIA and State Department personnel at overseas postings that some believe were caused by microwaves targeted at Americans. 

In a tight two-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, veteran diplomat Bill Burns was repeatedly pressed by lawmakers for promises both to determine who was behind the alleged attacks and to ensure officers afflicted by them were given the proper medical care. 

“I will make it an extraordinarily high priority to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the attacks and to ensure that colleagues and their families get the care they deserve,” including treatment at Walter Reed National Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health, Burns said. 

The strange illness struck dozens of intelligence and diplomatic personnel, first at the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2016 and later in China and other countries. Afflicted personnel described dizziness and headaches, as well as loss of hearing and memory, among other symptoms. Some were forced to retire. Although U.S. officials have said Russia is the primary suspect, the Trump administration issued few public statements on the incidents. Some former officers have said that they were not provided the proper care in the wake of the apparent attack. 

Burns, an experienced diplomat who helped lead secret negotiations with Iran under President Obama and served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, sailed through his hearing on Wednesday. Lawmakers from both parties committed from the dais to support his nomination, which was not expected to be contentious. Burns drew on his experience in tumultuous regions where intelligence officers and diplomats work closely together to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the agency. 

“I served alongside them in hard places around the world,” the nominee said. “It was their skill at collection and analysis that often gave me an edge as a negotiator; their partnership that helped make me an effective ambassador; and their insights that helped me make thoughtful choices on the most difficult policy issues.”

Amicable lawmakers pressed Burns on how he would approach the directorship of an agency shifting focus away from the counterterrorism wars of the past two decades towards the threat from China. Burns, in laying out his priorities, named China first in a list of four “interrelated priorities”: China, technology, people, and partnerships.

He rejected the comparison of the current U.S. dynamic with Beijing to the Cold War, a popular analysis in some foreign policy circles. 

“This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily on security and ideological terms,” Burns said. “This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious on technology and capable in economic terms.”

And he promised to boost the agency’s recruitment and training of Mandarin speakers, making a public case for the CIA’s human intelligence operations — long the beating heart of the agency. 

Burns also vowed to address concerns about morale at the spy agency, which had flagged under regular sharp attacks from former President Donald Trump. Burns promised to reinforce that “their work matters more than ever [and] that their expertise, courage, sacrifices are respected,” and "that we will deliver unvarnished intelligence…to policymakers without any hint of politics.”

Serving alongside intelligence officers in Russia and the Middle East, Burns said in his opening statement, “I learned that politics must stop where intelligence work begins.”

“That is exactly what President Biden expects of CIA,” he said. “He said he wants the Agency to give it to him straight — and I pledged to do just that, and to defend those who do the same.”

In response to questions from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Burns affirmed that he believes waterboarding constitutes torture under settled law. But involvement in the program, he said, shouldn’t “prejudice [the] careers” of officers who at the time were acting under the direction of the president of the United States and CIA leadership.

Burns was also pressed on Iran, telling Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that under no circumstances can Tehran be trusted to have a nuclear weapon. If the United States and Iran were to reenter the original 2015 nuclear deal that Burns helped negotiate, he said, it should be used as a “platform” to address other misconduct by Iran, including its efforts to destabilize other governments and its ballistic missile program. 

Burns’ nomination has been greeted with enthusiasm by former intelligence officials, who see him as a steadying force on an agency that has been buffeted by partisan politics for the past four years. Burns, who retired in 2014 after a 33-year career in diplomacy, was introduced at his hearing by former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Jim Baker, who said his confirmation should be “a bipartisan no-brainer.” Burns has been hailed on the left — Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., praised his human rights record and joked that the hearing risked "becoming a full-fledged bouquet-throwing contest” — and on the right. 

“I can't think of anybody that has the breadth of experience that you've had in the world,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.