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Science & Medicine

Transcript: NPR's Full Conversation With CIA Director William Burns

CIA Director William J. Burns in his office in Langley, Va.
CIA Director William J. Burns in his office in Langley, Va.

William Burns gives his first sit-down interview since assuming the role of Central Intelligence Agency director in March. In a wide-ranging conversation, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly asks him about his priorities, China, Afghanistan, the origins of Havana Syndrome and COVID-19 — and what keeps him up at night.

Mary Louise Kelly: May I start by saying thank you for taking our questions. Your immediate predecessor did not do media interviews, and I get it, it must feel like there's a lot of downside and no upside when everything's classified and you can't say much. But I do think there is value in Americans hearing directly from you, what this agency is doing on their behalf. So thank you.

CIA Director William Burns: You know, I do, too. And it's great to be with you, Mary Louise.

Let's start there. New CIA directors come in and they always want to refocus on the core mission or build expertise in country X or reorganize the whole place. What do you want to do?

First, I would say I'm really honored to be director of CIA. I spent almost my entire adult life in public service: first in diplomacy and now in intelligence. I remember when I was entering the foreign service many, many years ago, my dad — who recently passed away and was a very fine man and a very fine career military officer — wrote me a note. And in the note, he said at one point, "Nothing can make you prouder than to serve your country with honor." And I saw the reality of that in three and a half decades as a career diplomat, and I see it every day in my new role as director of CIA. Over the course of all those years, I worked very closely with CIA officers on hard issues in hard places around the world and developed enormous respect for them. And I know that I was a better ambassador, a better negotiator, a better policymaker because of the work of CIA officers: the intelligence they collected, the insights that they provided. And I hope very much that I'll be a better director of CIA because my experience as a policymaker, as a diplomat, should help me better connect intelligence work to what matters most to policymakers. At least that's what I'll try very hard to do.

The first thing I'd stress, as you look at the CIA's role over the next decade, is that all of us in the United States, I think, are at a really important moment of transition in the world. We're no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, especially with the rise of China. And as you know very well, there's a revolution in technology which is transforming the way we live, work, compete and fight. And so CIA, like everyone else in the U.S. government, has to take that into account. And so in my confirmation hearing, I laid out four broad priorities. I stress that that doesn't mean we can neglect continuing challenges like terrorism or climate change, but the four priorities I laid out — the places I think we need, at CIA, to put particular emphasis on in the years ahead — are, first, China: the single biggest geopolitical challenge that the United States faces far out into the 21st century, as I can see. Technology: the main arena for competition and rivalry with China. Third: partnerships. The biggest comparative advantage that we have in the U.S. government in dealing with lonelier powers like China and Russia: We have allies and partners in the world, and that's true in intelligence as well, and we need to invest in those. And then fourth, and certainly not least: our biggest asset, people and the need to continue to invest in the wonderful patriots who serve at CIA to make us a more diverse and inclusive agency — because we cannot be effective around the world if everybody looks like me — and to make sure we're taking care of people. So navigating through the COVID pandemic — and we're still navigating through it, although, at CIA, we have fully vaccinated more than 95% of our officers, both at headquarters and overseas — and on issues like anomalous health incidents that pose real serious risks and threats to our officers.

But so what does this look like? Because it sounds — you know, how could you argue with that new CIA director saying we need to focus on people, we need to focus on relationships, we need to focus on China?

Right.

I mean, if I were to go over and peek on your desk, what's your actual to-do list look like? What are the first priorities?

Well, in each of those issues on China, for example, the big questions for us — and I've set in motion reviews on each of these issues as soon as I started at CIA because I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel: How do we organize ourselves at headquarters on China to make sure, since the China challenge runs across everything we do at CIA because it's a global competition, so what our officers working on Africa do has a lot to do with how we compete effectively with China. So how do we organize ourselves here? How do we organize ourselves overseas as well?

Have you figured that out? Have you changed something yet?

We're in the process of doing it. I think we will make some changes that reflect the significance of the priority. How do we organize ourselves overseas? During the Cold War, both at the State Department and at CIA, we rightly forward-deployed Soviet specialists to help make sure that we could compete effectively. I think the same is true and this is one of the things that I'm exploring right now, to forward-deploy China specialists — whether it's operations officers, analysts, technologists as well — to make us more effective in that competition, in that rivalry in the field as well. And then, of course, on technology issues again, on China: making sure that we're staying ahead of the game in how we innovate and how we deal with phenomena like ubiquitous technical surveillance, which is basically what happens when you have smart cities and very advanced capabilities on the part of the Chinese intelligence service to make it much more complicated to do espionage overseas. So we have to transform our tradecraft, not just at CIA, but across the intelligence community as well. So [those] are among the challenges that are out there that are in my inbox every day right now, along with the other challenges that inevitably have to occupy our time and effort around the world.

I remember when John Brennan came in, he did a massive reorganization; it was quite controversial, although a lot of it is still in place.

Yes.

Are you going to leave it in place? Do you see the need for a massive reorganization?

No, this is not meant to be on the scale of what John did with the modernization. I don't think we need to reinvent the wheel. But I do think, six years after any big effort like that, it makes sense to look at smart adjustments that you can make that reflect some of those priorities that I mentioned. So my intent is to build on that, which I think is a very solid framework, but particularly to focus on the kind of workforce that we're going to need over the next 10, 20 years.

I wonder, having built your career as a diplomat, does the world look different sitting here at Langley? Because you're dealing with the same countries, the same challenges, often the same leaders who you dealt with in your career at State. A challenge like China, for example: Does it look different when you're looking at it from the perspective of doing espionage instead of doing diplomacy?

I mean, it's different in the sense that as a diplomat over those three and a half decades, I helped shape policy. And my job, our job, at CIA is to support and inform policymakers so they make the best possible choices; it's not to become policymakers. And so what that means, I think, is that our obligation is to deliver, in an unvarnished way without any political or policy agenda, the best and most well-grounded intelligence that we can collect to help the president and all of my colleagues in this government make smart choices. I've known and worked with and admired the president for a quarter century, and he made very clear to me when he asked me to take on this job that that's what he expects, even when the intelligence we provide is not convenient; and I know that feeling, as a policymaker before. So I fully admit that I'll probably be tempted sometimes, sitting in the White House --

Has that been tested yet, may I ask?

Inevitably, it's tested, but I've asked my colleagues around the table in the White House Situation Room to kick me under the table if I start to stray back into policy issues, because that's not my role right now.

Afghanistan. It has been reported that U.S. intelligence estimates the Afghan government could fall in as soon as six months after a full U.S. withdrawal. Is that accurate?

Well, the trend lines that all of us see today are certainly troubling. The Taliban are making significant military advances; they're probably in the strongest military position that they've been in since 2001.

But that date, as soon as six months, is that correct?

Well, there are a lot of possibilities out there. I mean, what I would say is that the Afghan government retains significant military capabilities. The big question, it seems to me and to all of my colleagues at CIA and across the intelligence community, is whether or not those capabilities can be exercised with the kind of political willpower and unity of leadership that's absolutely essential to resist the Taliban. So, as I said, the trend lines are certainly troubling. I don't think that that should lead us to foregone conclusions or a sense of imminence or inevitability, but they really are worrying as well. So the U.S. government, as the president has made clear — and CIA will play a part in this — will continue to be strongly supportive of the Afghan government in every way that we can. And for CIA, we will be sharply focused beyond the withdrawal of the U.S. military and continuing terrorism challenges.

I wonder — your analysts will obviously be revising every day as new information comes in — that date that has put out there, that's been out there, that's gotten a lot of press, that the government could fall in as few as six months. In your view, is it going to take that long, considering what the current trend lines look like?

It doesn't have to. I mean, as I said: Fundamentally, it seems to me and to our analysts this is a question of willpower and unity of leadership and the ability of the Afghan military and security services to consolidate their positions, which are in the process of trying to do right now. But again, I have to be honest, I mean, those trend lines are troubling right now, too. At CIA, our principal mission is to stay focused on the danger that al-Qaida or ISIS will try to reconstitute themselves in Afghanistan. We will retain significant capabilities both in and around Afghanistan to collect information when and if terrorist groups try to reconstitute themselves and again, plot against or attack U.S. interests as well. And al-Qaida is not the same threat that it was 20 years ago. We've had — we've significantly degraded their capability there —

But it's growing again.

It could. It could. And that's what we have to stay sharply focused on. And, you know, for Afghanistan, Mary Louise, I mean, it's shaped a whole generation of my colleagues at CIA going back 20 years. And people should be proud of the role that CIA has played. First, we were first in on the ground just a few weeks after 9/11 --

Before the military.

Before the military, and then worked very closely with the military to overthrow the Taliban government in a matter of months after 9/11. We played a central role in the successful hunt for bin Laden a decade later. CIA has played a very important role in the serious degradation of al-Qaida over the course of the last 20 years. So we may not have exactly the same capabilities, counterterrorist capabilities, that we had when you had tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground. I mean, that's just a fact. But al-Qaida is not the same enemy as it was then, too. But we have to stay sharply focused on it.

How does the military pullout affect your ability to collect intelligence?

It obviously has an impact, but we work very closely with the military to help ensure that we retain a capability, as I said, to collect on and counter those efforts for al-Qaida to reconstitute itself. Because I have no doubt that they will make that effort.

You're saying here, and I've heard you testify that it's simply a fact that, as the U.S. military goes it becomes harder for the CIA to collect the intelligence you need to give to policymakers. Can you give any kind of example of how that challenge looks now? Which you won't be able to do?

Well, I think, I mean, the point I would stress is we'll still be able to do a lot, first. And second, al-Qaida is today not nearly the threat that was 20 years ago. We made really significant progress in degrading al-Qaida. As I said, I have no doubt, my colleagues at CIA have no doubt, that they're going to try to reconstitute themselves, as will ISIS. But I think we have the capabilities to be able to monitor that and counter it, working with the U.S. military as time goes on.

To the point you were making about the CIA having been the first U.S. boots on the ground after 9/11, I was thinking: It falls to President Biden to make the case to the nation that the American war in Afghanistan was worth it. I wonder how you make the case to the workforce here. You were first in and you will be there after the military leaves.

We will, and we'll keep at it, and I'm deeply proud of my colleagues who demonstrate enormous skill and courage and ingenuity --

And lost lives.

[crosstalk] I led, at the end of May the annual memorial ceremony for CIA, which is in many ways the most profound day of the year for CIA. We put four new stars on our memorial wall, each one commemorating an officer lost in the line of duty, a couple of those who were lost in Afghanistan in recent years. So it's a vivid reminder of what's at stake here, but our role will be beyond the withdrawal of the U.S. military to continue to try to keep Americans safe. And that means focusing sharply on the efforts of al-Qaida, or any other terrorist group to use — to again use Afghanistan as a platform to threaten us.

So bottom line, I know you can't share a classified assessment, but where is the CIA in terms of the trend line in Afghanistan and how bad or not it looks?

Well, trend line, as I said, is troubling. We've seen significant Taliban military advances. But I do think it's important to recognize that the Afghan government still has significant capabilities. The question, again, as it is so often in these kind of cases, is about political willpower and unity of leadership. They have the capacity to resist, but that requires that kind of willpower.

Havana syndrome. These mysterious health episodes where U.S. officials — including apparently plenty of CIA officials — report strange sounds and pressure in their heads. Have you learned what causes it?

We still don't know for sure, but I am absolutely determined — and I've spent a great deal of time and energy on this in the four months I've been CIA director — to get to the bottom of the question of what and who caused this. On my first day on the job here, literally, I started meeting with victims of these kind of incidents. And I've continued to do that both here at headquarters and when I've traveled overseas as well, and I take very seriously what they've experienced and the threat that these kind of incidents posed.

So you're persuaded this is real.

I'm certainly persuaded that what our officers and some family members — as well as other U.S. government employees — have experienced is real and it's serious. And we are determined to get to the bottom of this. So the first challenge is to make sure people are getting the care that they deserve. So in my first week on the job, I went to Walter Reed Hospital, where our colleagues in the military have provided enormous support for those of our colleagues who have been affected by this, some of whom have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury as well. So I wanted to thank those officers and medical personnel there. We've tripled the number of full-time medical personnel at CIA who are focused on these issues. We have reduced the amount of time it used to take to wait to get into Walter Reed for our officers from more than eight weeks to less than two weeks. So we're very focused on that. But at the same time, we have a very strong team of people — the best across CIA — focused on those questions of "What?" and "Who?", led by a very experienced and accomplished senior officer who, a decade ago, led the successful hunt for bin Laden. So we're throwing the very best we have at this issue because it is not only a very serious issue for our colleagues, as it is for others across the U.S. government, but it's a profound obligation, I think, of any leader to take care of your people, and that's what I'm determined to do.

How many cases are we talking?

There are probably a couple of hundred since Havana in 2016. There are probably a couple of hundred incidents across the U.S. government and across the globe. Of those couple of hundred, there's probably about 100 in which my colleagues, my officers and family members have been affected.

CIA are involved.

The government describes these as "anomalous health incidents," which sounds a lot more benign than "attacks." Are they attacks?

You know, we use the term "incidents" across the U.S. government, but the truth is, Mary Louise, that what matters most to me is the reality that whatever you call these, they're harming our colleagues here, my colleagues at CIA. And that's what we're determined to get to the bottom of.

When you say you're trying to figure out what's causing them and who is causing them, that suggests that this is someone taking action.

That's certainly a very strong possibility. The National Academy of Sciences, a year ago, in a very extensive report that they did, suggested that the most plausible theory for what caused this was some form of directed energy, and that sort of narrows, then, the number of potential suspects who could have used this, have used it historically and have the reach to do this in more than one part of the world, too. So, yeah, we're very focused on getting to the bottom of this.

Is it Russia?

Could be, but I honestly cannot — I don't want to suggest until we can draw some more definitive conclusions who it might be. But there are a number of possibilities.

Speaking of Russia: Any sign that the pace of cyberattacks emanating from Russia is slowing?

I mean, "we'll see" is the honest answer, as the president has said, because the attacks have taken two forms: I mean, one is sort of state-sponsored attacks like we saw in SolarWinds, and then the other are ransomware attacks, as well.

But, say, since Geneva and the summit with President Putin. Any sign that — ?

Well, there was certainly one incident, you know, a group called REvil was responsible for. We'll see what comes after that. I mean, the president — both in Geneva and then in a subsequent telephone conversation with President Putin — made very clear the priority that he attaches to this and the reality that we will take action if the Russian government doesn't take action against groups operating in its territory. In my experience in dealing with Vladimir Putin over the years — and most of my gray hair came from my service in Russia and dealing with Putin's Russia — he's not shy about controlling things that happen on or from his territory, as well. So this is a test of seriousness on this issue, as well.

I keep hearing from you, from President Biden, from other senior members of the administration, "We will take action if Russia doesn't." Is there a timeline on that? Because this has been happening for years.

It has.

I understand Biden hasn't been president for years, but how long before?

No, I don't — I don't know, and this is where, in my former role as a policymaker, I might have suggested something, but the president has indicated that that period is finite when he's talked about "We'll see over the course of the next six or 12 months." And so we'll see.

And again, just to make sure I'm hearing you: President Biden has warned Putin, saying "Even if we're talking attacks not sponsored by the state, I expect you to act and shut it down, Vladimir Putin." Does the CIA see any signs that Putin is acting?

You know, I don't know. I mean, in the wake of this most recent REvil incident or attack as well, we're still trying to assess the aftermath of that right now. So a fair starting position, as always, to be skeptical about these issues, about the capacity of this Russian government to act on these issues. But it is a really important test, I think, of seriousness on the part of the Russian leadership.

China. In the CIA's current estimation, what is the probability that the virus that causes COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan?

Well, as you know, Mary Louise, this is something the president has asked the director of national intelligence — and CIA is playing a very active role in this process — to try to come up with our best judgment on that issue. And the honest answer today is that we cannot offer a definitive conclusion about whether this originated in a lab accident or whether it originated in a natural transmission from infected animals to human beings. We are working very hard on this. It's not an academic problem. I mean, this affects not only the hundreds of thousands and millions of people around the world who have been affected by this, but it's also absolutely essential as we think ahead — not just to the United States, but in other parts of the world — about how do you prevent another pandemic crisis of this magnitude. In order to do that, it's extremely important to get to the bottom of this. And the two realities are that the Chinese government has not been transparent, has not fully cooperated in the WHO's investigation initially — and it's more recently suggested it's going to refuse to cooperate in a follow up as well. And that is deeply unfortunate. We will continue to do everything we can to collect on this, work with the rest of the intelligence community and provide the best answers we can on this.But as of today --

Is it possible it's unknowable, though?

It's possible. It is possible, like so many things that we may never be able to come to a definitive judgment [on], but it's not going to be for lack of hard work or effort on this issue to try to uncover as much as we can about what happened.

Does the CIA have enough case officers who speak Mandarin?

We need to increase the number. You know, again, competition with China is not solely a function of how many Mandarin speakers we have. I mean, if you're competing in Africa —

I use that as shorthand for expertise.

We do. We need to attract — and I welcome any of your listeners out there who are thinking about this because it's, you know, serving --

This is a recruitment pitch we're getting.

Yeah, it is, because serving your country, I think is, you know, has been enormously satisfying for me, now over almost 40 years. And I think CIA offers some real opportunities. And yes, we do need to strengthen our expertise, not only in Mandarin speakers, but in people who can help on technology issues — again, the main arena for our rivalry with China and help us compete with China across the globe. So our ability to compete with China in Africa depends a lot on having officers working with diplomats who can navigate those societies and develop and exercise influence better than the Chinese can, as well. And so that's also what we want to focus on.

North Korea.

Yes.

Out of the headlines at the moment. Any doubt in your mind that they are continuing to build their missile program and their nuclear arsenal?

No, no doubt at all. I mean, they've been steadily expanding both their missile and nuclear programs over the course of recent years. And so we at CIA stay very focused on this issue for all the obvious reasons, the kind of threats that that poses not just to U.S. interests and potentially to the U.S. homeland, but also to some of our closest allies and South Korea and in Japan.

Yeah, I mean, I remember when President Obama was preparing to exit office, and he invited President-elect Trump to come sit down with him and brief him and tell him what he needed to watch for — the way things used to work, an orderly transition of power. Obama was reported to have told Trump that North Korea was going to be the No. 1 national security threat, the scariest thing he was going to face. Where does it rank now?

Well, I think it's still a very scary threat. And oftentimes, something that's not in today's headlines will reemerge. And just given the nature of that leadership and the nature of its capabilities, which are expanding, you have to be very concerned about that. So that's why, as I said before, when you look at priorities, you just can't afford to neglect a lot of the continuing challenges, whether it's North Korea or Iran or anyplace else, which are going to continue to occupy our time, attention and work.

The classic question, but I am always curious: Out of all we've talked about, what keeps you awake at night?

Oh, well, one thing I've learned, especially in this job over the last four months, that there's a certain amount of interrupted sleep that comes with the job or comes with the territory. You know, the honest answer comes back to the very beginning of the conversation, and that's people. We have at CIA, as we're talking here today, colleagues who are doing very hard jobs in very hard and dangerous places around the world, and so I worry about their safety, about their security. I have no doubt at all about their skill and dedication and ingenuity, but I worry about that. And that's the obligation, I think, of any leader is to pay attention, not just to those obvious risks and dangers and some very tough places around the world, some of which I visited recently, but also in terms of ensuring people who are threatened by anomalous health incidents or others get the care they deserve.

Director Burns, thank you.

My pleasure. Thank you very much.

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