‘Profound changes’: CIA Director William Burns discusses the future of U.S. security and intelligence

Oct. 20, 2021, 11:08 p.m.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns warned that the United States is in a period of flux due to “profound changes” in relations between world powers at a Wednesday discussion in Encina Hall. 

Burns joined his former colleague and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Director Michael McFaul for a discussion on national security and Burn’s vision for the CIA. Burns, a career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan, became the eighth director of the CIA in March. 

Burns said that the present-day “is one of those moments of transition for the United States that comes along two or three times a century.” 

He attributed this transitional period to “profound changes” in relationships between world powers, especially given the recent rise of China, though Burns said that it is critical for U.S. intelligence efforts not to neglect more familiar challenges such as those involving Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism. 

Climate change, Burns added, poses an existential threat to humanity. He also said that the technological revolution will affect the CIA’s overseas operations and national defense.

Burns described his plans to establish a CIA mission center focused on China and launch weekly meetings exclusively focused on this, just as his predecessors did for issues pertaining to counterterrorism over the past two decades. A second mission center will focus on transnational issues and technology, he said. 

Burns said that although his previous diplomatic roles allowed him to “shape policy” in the State Department, his current one requires him to support policymakers. 

“I have to tell my colleagues around the White House Situation Room table to kick me under the table if I start to stray in the other direction,” Burns said. 

Burns said there are many connections between diplomacy and intelligence despite surface-level differences. One administrative overlap, Burns said, is efforts within both the State Department and CIA to foster more diverse institutions.

“We’re an agency with global reach,” Burns said. “That means we’ve got to reflect the diversity of our own society if we’re going to have an effect around the world.”

During the question-answer period, a student asked Burns about the challenges Asian Americans face entering public service because of suspicions of foreign loyalties — a reality Burns said he does all he can to counter.

“One of the things I’ve tried hardest to do over the last seven months in notes to our workforce and walking around and talking to people is to make absolutely clear that our understandable focus on the challenge posed by China is about the Chinese leadership.” Burns said. “It’s not about the people of China, and it certainly is not about Asian Americans or Americans of Chinese descent.” 

Burns also emphasized the value of public service, saying that he is a “believer in the virtues of public service and what it means to our country.”

In his pitch for Stanford students joining government service, Burns highlighted his plans to expedite the CIA application process.

“It takes way too long today — as long as two years — from application to final clearance,” Burns said. “We have a plan now to cut that to about half a year, which is easier said than done, but it’s absolutely essential to create a more diverse workforce.”

Burns attributed much of his value of government service to his father, the late Major Gen. William F. Burns, who according to Burns told him that “nothing can make you prouder than to serve your country with honor.” 

Burns described his own life career in diplomacy as a remarkable opportunity, and said his primary motivation as both a diplomat and CIA director is to work with intelligent and committed people on complicated challenges during pivotal global moments.

“It can be incredibly rewarding,” Burns said. “I hope some of you will consider it.”

Jed Ngalande '23 is the politics and government beat reporter for The Daily's news section. Contact him at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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