William J. Burns’ appointment offers little more than an image makeover for the agency. As a diplomat, Burns supported U.S. military interventions in Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria and is now stoking the coals against Russia and China.
William J. Burns was confirmed by a unanimous vote in the Senate on Thursday, March 18th, becoming the first former diplomat to become CIA director.
At his confirmation hearing on February 26th, Burns continued a long agency tradition of playing up the threat from Russia and China along with North Korea, and said that Iran should not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.
Burns’s testimony signaled a continuation of business as usual for the agency in its promotion of alarmist rhetoric and ruthless geopolitical competition and political skullduggery.
As one of America’s top diplomats, Burns offers the opportunity for a public relations makeover for an agency that has engaged in widespread criminal activity over decades.
The Senate Intelligence Committee hearing was more of a coronation than a confrontational question-and-answer session, reflecting the deferential attitude of Congress toward the CIA.
Vowing to improve spying on China, Burns described the Chinese government as adversarial and predatory at the hearing.
“We have to buckle up for the long haul, I think, in competition with China,” he said. “This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms. This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious with technology and capable in economic terms as well.”
To meet the threat, Burns advocated for more China specialists and Mandarin-language training for CIA employees, along with investment in new technologies to help improve intelligence collection and analysis.
Burns also highlighted ways that Russia could make trouble, including with cyberoperations like the SolarWinds hacking that allowed it to steal secrets from nine federal agencies.
“Putin’s Russia continues to demonstrate that declining powers can be just as disruptive as rising ones and can make use of asymmetrical tools, especially cybertools, to do that,” Mr. Burns said. “We can’t afford to underestimate them.”
A Sterling Choice?
Writing in the normally iconoclastic CounterPunch magazine, Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst (1966-1990), asserted that Burns was a “sterling choice” to head the CIA, and that his selection will “reverse the decades of lackluster and mediocre CIA directors.”
Goodman suggested that Burns possessed the leadership qualities and experience which pointed to the “kind of strategic vision that has been missing within the militarized intelligence community, particularly the CIA.”
He added that Burns was “cut from the same cloth as such outstanding foreign service officers as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen.” Kennan’s containment policy made up the basis of the U.S. approach to fighting the Cold War and Bohlen helped develop the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Goodman’s celebration of the Cold War’s key architects is disturbing in considering that the Cold War ensured the perpetuation of gargantuan military budgets after World War II and resulted in millions of deaths and unprecedented domestic repression.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry also compared Burns favorably to Kennan and Bohlen, stating that Burns had “earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”
A similar view was promoted by CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who wrote in Consortium News that, “if there must be a CIA, I feel better with Bill Burns being in charge of it.”
Kiriakou continued: “Burns is one of the most highly respected senior U.S. diplomats of the past three decades. He has ably served presidents of both parties and is known as a reformer and supporter of human rights.”
The message, according to Kiriakou, with Burns’s appointment is clear:
A critical scrutiny of Burns’s past, however, shows that his record is not as sterling as Goodman and Kiriakou suggest.
Burns helped forge close U.S. relations with oppressive leaders, supported subversion operations against Russia and Ukraine, and helped build support for wars ranging from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan to Libya to Ukraine.
A clue about Burns was offered at his confirmation hearing where it was revealed that, as Director of the Carnegie Endowment for international Peace in 2018, he was given free tickets to the Super Bowl by the Saudi government, one of the most brutal regimes in the world.
Burns served as Deputy Secretary of State in an administration that provided the Saudis with record arms sales, amounting to more than $115 billion.
A major fallacy to which Goodman and Kiriakou subscribe is that the work of diplomats is separate from that of the military and CIA when, in fact, they are usually intertwined.
Ex-CIA Director John Brennan (2012-2017) noted that the agency had a long experience working with Burns during his ambassadorial and senior State Department posts.
A Man Who Sold His Soul for Power
Burns’s memoir, entitled The Back Channel (2019), indicates a man who has sold his soul for the trappings of power.
In the prologue, Burns reminisces nostalgically about the heady days of the early 1990s when he witnessed first-hand “American diplomacy and power at their peak”—a time when “history seemed to flow inexorably in America’s direction, the power of its ideas driving the rest of the world in a slow but irresistible surge towards democracy and free-markets.”
Burns wrote that
Described by his boss Hillary Clinton as a “steady hand” and “very effective firefighter,” Burns joined the foreign service in the early 1980s after completing a doctorate at Oxford University with a dissertation on U.S. economic programs in Egypt during the Cold War.
Burns’s father, William Burns, Sr., was a decorated army officer and Vietnam War veteran who became director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He played a role in negotiating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with the Soviet Union, limiting middle-range nuclear weapons, in 1987.
During the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Burns Jr. was deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff under Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who worked determinately to build up support among U.S. allies for the 1st Persian Gulf War.
Burns writes in his memoir about “joining Baker in his tin cup mission covering nine countries in eleven days, which secured $50 billion in contributions that helped to defray the cost of U.S. military operations.”
When countries did not comply, they had their foreign aid cut—by as much as 90 percent as in the case of Yemen.
Burns praised President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney for accomplishing their goals in the war “with a skill and drive as fine as any example I saw in government.”
The bombing of Iraq, however, resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and destruction of much of Iraq’s infrastructure, resulting in a horrendous humanitarian catastrophe when economic sanctions were applied.
During the 1990s, Burns was posted at the U.S. embassies in Moscow and Amman where he promoted “free-market reforms,” including privatization, tariff reduction and cutting public services.
The new rules led to a 20% increase in the price of medicines in Jordan, while Russia suffered huge declines in its GDP and life expectancy levels.
During Burns’s tenure as ambassador to Moscow from 2005 to 2008, U.S. relations with Russia deteriorated.
During that time Burns a) met regularly with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken opponents, including Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, in a clear signal of his priorities, b) pushed back against a ban of foreign NGOs that had triggered color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, and c) was given instructions by George W. Bush to tell Putin that any moves toward NATO expansion in Georgia and Ukraine should not be seen as threatening, which Putin of course would never believe.
Burns further supported a $1 billion economic aid package for Georgia proposed by then-Senator Biden, which in effect rewarded Georgia for invading and devastating its breakaway province of South Ossetia in August 2008 and provoking a conflict with Russia.
In 2007, after Putin gave a speech criticizing American unilateral power, Burns drafted a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, stating that the
As if nothing that Putin said in the speech was true.
Between 2001 and 2005, Burns served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, a region that included Egypt where he helped sustain strong relations with Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
In the buildup to Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq in 2003, Burns supported the goal of regime change but wanted the Bush administration to build a wider coalition similar to 1st Persian Gulf War. Subsequently, he traveled to Iraq many times as a diplomat to try to advance U.S. policy objectives.
Burns also championed the war in Afghanistan.
In 2009 as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, he traveled with Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia (2012-2014), to secure the support of Central Asian despots for U.S. basing facilities that could serve as staging grounds for military operations.
These despots included Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, whose rule was described as “somewhere between Franco and Chile [Pinochet],” and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, who had one of his political opponents boiled alive.
The Drivel of a Diplomat
In a book about the deception used to sell intervention in World War I nearly a century ago, journalist George Abel Schreiner urged that people “not give too much heed to the drivel one finds in the books of diplomatist-authors.”
Though at times presenting astute analysis, Burns’s memoir is filled with politicized disinformation and drivel, marking him as a fitting new CIA director.
An example is his blaming Libya’s former leader Muammar Qaddafi for the downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988.
Burns writes that, “in all the hours I spent with [Qaddafi] and his lieutenants over four years, I never once forgot the blood on their hands. One of the 259 innocent victims of the Pan Am 103 flight bombed by Libyan operatives was my friend Matthew Gannon, a CIA officer with whom I had served in Amman in the early 1980s.”
Independent investigations, however, have determined that the Pan Am flight was likely downed by Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner by the U.S.S. Vincennes a year before, with evidence for the culpability of Libyan operatives being scant.
Burns also promotes considerable disinformation in his discussion of Putin and Russia.
Describing Putin as an “extreme embodiment of that peculiarly Russian combination of qualities: cocky, cranky, aggrieved, and insecure,” Burns condemns him for his “ruthless annexation of Crimea”—when Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Russia in a referendum in 2014 that was provoked by a U.S.-sponsored coup d’état in Ukraine.
Burns further insinuated that Putin was guilty of political assassination for which the evidence is not firmly established, and of large-scale election interference in 2016 which has also never been proven.
In his discussion of the Russia sanctions—which Burns strongly supported—Burns claims that they targeted “Russian officials implicated in the terrible prison death of a young lawyer who had uncovered evidence of high-level corruption.”
The young lawyer that died in prison whom he was referencing was Sergey Magnitsky, who was actually an accountant.
He worked for William F. Browder, a hedge-fund manager and suspected British MI6 agent who claims that his company, Hermitage Capital Management, was defrauded of $230 million by the Russian government.
Magnitsky’s specialty was helping wealthy clients like Browder move their money off-shore and carry out tax evasion, which Browder was convicted of in absentia in a Moscow court.
Rather than being a whistleblower who exposed corruption, Magnitsky had been questioned by authorities for his involvement in the theft of the $230 million by Browder.
Burns’s promotion of disinformation and drivel in his memoir extends to his assertion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out chemical attacks on his own people, when most of the alleged incidents are still under investigation, and rebel forces backed by the CIA were also accused of undertaking chemical warfare.
The accusations against Assad were long promoted by the State Department to support the bombing of Syria for which Burns was a strong advocate.
Supporting Assassination, Islamic Fundamentalism, and War
Burns brags in his memoir about being in the White House Situation Room during the assassination of Osama bin Laden, writing “never had I been prouder of the U.S. military, or of a president [Barack Obama], who had so coolly taken such a big risk.”
The assassination of bin Laden, however, was illegal under international law, and there are questions as to whether bin Laden was actually killed on that day as his body was disposed of, preventing a proper autopsy or identification. (One theory holds that he had died years earlier of renal failure.)
Burns was a strong supporter of the 2011 U.S.-NATO war in Libya, which destabilized Africa’s wealthiest country and fueled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, warlord rule, and the reintroduction of slavery.
Burns had helped lay the groundwork for the war in the early 2000s by negotiating an agreement by which Muammar Qaddafi paid compensation to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing (which evidence shows Libya was not actually involved with) and aborted Libya’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.
Without a nuclear deterrent, Qaddafi was more vulnerable to Western military invasion.
In his memoir, Burns repeatedly demonized Qaddafi in an even worse way than he did Vladimir Putin, referring to Qaddafi’s “weird and repressive rule,” and asserting that he had “tried to seize center stage with despicable acts and surreal performance art.” Burns wrote further that Qaddafi’s personal style was “decidedly unhinged.”
Burns characterized the speech that Qaddafi gave at the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2009 calling for the return of $777 trillion that had been stolen from Africa by the colonial powers and investigation into the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba, UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., as “rambling” “ranting” and “bizarre” and “hardly an advertisement for [Qaddafi’s] soundness of mind.”
Qaddafi was by no means a saint but these latter comments display Burns’s insensitivity to the history of Western interference and colonization experienced by African countries like Libya and efforts of contemporary African leaders like Qaddafi to try to overcome it.
On March 17, 2011, two days before the U.S. NATO bombing, Burns promoted alarmist testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Qaddafi and the prospects for a bloodbath in Benghazi, and defended the Obama administration’s war policy against skeptics such as Richard Lugar (R-IN), who stated that the president had to obtain congressional approval for U.S. military action and better define U.S. national security interests in Libya.
CIA operations officer Douglas London tweeted that Burns worked closely with the CIA on Libya.
This included the spread of disinformation that was used to sell the war—such as that Qaddafi was poised to commit a genocide in Benghazi if he was not stopped, and that he fed his soldiers Viagra so they would commit mass rapes.
After the war, Burns was part of a U.S. diplomatic delegation that worked to shore up the regime of President Mohammed El-Magariaf, a former leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NSFL), an Islamist organization that opposed Qaddafi’s rule in the 1980s and 1990s.
Blowback from the war came with the assassination of Burns’s friend, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, by Islamic militants who had been empowered by the U.S.-NATO War.
Stevens had been running an illegal arms-smuggling pipeline from Libya into Syria that was part of a $1 billion train-and-equip program, which amounted to the CIA’s largest covert operation (called Operation Timber Sycamore) since the CIA’s support for the Afghan mujahadin in the 1980s.
In both cases, the U.S. proxies were jihadist rebels, although Burns would have us believe that, in the Syrian case, there were “moderates.”
Many were trained at CIA training camps in Jordan, where, conveniently, Burns had been the U.S. ambassador from 1998 to 2001.
In his memoir, Burns advocated for an expansion of Timber Sycamore, a classified CIA weapons supply and training program against Assad, while blaming the Russians and Chinese for “callously” and “destructively” vetoing “even the mildest of resolutions condemning [Syrian leader Bashar] al-Assad’s bombardment of unarmed civilians—proving to Assad he would face no sanctions for his war crimes.”
Assad as we know committed atrocities against unarmed civilians, but so did the jihadist rebel forces arrayed against him whom Burns was supporting.
Burns advocated bombing Syria in late summer 2013 after Assad allegedly used chemical weapons in Eastern Ghoutta, though proof has never been firmly established and rebel forces were also known to possess stocks of sarin nerve gas.
Burns’s courtship with dictators was evident in a December 2012 meeting with United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi while attending a counter-terrorism conference there.
Burns’s meeting helped to cement the U.S. strategic alliance with the UAE, whose ruling Al-Nahyan dynasty equipped thousands of Yemeni soldiers fighting on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration sold over $20 billion worth of arms to the UAE, including tactical missiles used in the war in Yemen, which has bred the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.
Confronting the Russians
Burns’s anti-Russian fervor—he believes that “deterring Russian aggression” is a main security challenge–led him to support Ukraine’s Maidan Square uprising in February 2014 which was directed against Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian leader who had been legally elected four years earlier.
While leading a U.S. delegation at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Burns was sent to Kyiv when the uprising broke out. There, Burns met with Arseniy Yatsenyuk whom the State Department was grooming for high office.
Yatsenyuk promoted conservative economic policies and supported Ukraine’s integration into the European Union and membership in NATO.
He was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 2016 after championing painful austerity measures demanded by Western financial institutions—including layoffs of public employees and the partial privatization of health care and education—which plunged his popularity rating to near zero.
Besides meeting with Yatsenyuk during his visit to Kyiv, Burns gave a speech promoting the unfolding “revolution” and interacted with protesters in Maidan Square, telling Secretary of State John Kerry that he thought “this was the moment when Ukraine got it right.”
The Maidan protesters, however, included far-right neo-Nazi groups that gained influence in the post-coup government, which eclipsed all records for corruption and triggered a dirty war against separatist factions backed by Russia in Eastern Ukraine.
This war resulted in the deaths of 13,000 civilians and the displacement of over one million more.
Business as Usual
Burns’s history in government indicates that his tenure as head of the CIA will be business as usual—meaning more covert operations, disinformation, alarmism, bombing, and war.
In an interview with CAM, Ray McGovern, a founder of the group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, stated that two big questions linger after Burns’s confirmation:
- Will he be able to find/recruit substantive analysts who can be objective on Russia and China; and
- Will Burns, as an INTELLIGENCE, not political officer, have the guts to stand up to hardliners wet behind the ears, with allusions of grandeur and the naive abiding belief that the U.S. is the “sole indispensable country,” so “exceptional” that it somehow makes sense to take on Russia and China at the same time?
In McGovern’s view, for Burns it will be an uphill fight with the odds being against him being able to have a sensible impact, though McGovern holds some hope for change.
Joe Biden, in announcing his nomination of Burns, said that “the American people will be able to sleep soundly” with Burns as CIA Director.
This won’t be the case if the agency’s provocations trigger a war with China or Russia and nuclear weapons are deployed.
 William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (New York: Random House, 2019).
 Burns, The Back Channel, 4.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 60.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 62.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 60.
 See Ramsey Clark, The Fire This Time: U.S. War Crimes in the Gulf (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992).
 Burns, The Back Channel, 132. Burns helped to support Jordan’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Spring 2000 which he says was an essential first step in negotiating a bilateral free-trade agreement, the first with an Arab country.
 See Stephen Cohen, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001); Rohit Malpani, “All Costs, No Benefits: How the U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement Affects Access to Medicines,” Journal of Generic Medicines, May 1, 2009, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1057/jgm.2009.13
 Burns, The Back Channel, 216, 222. Burns also vigorously promoted U.S. trade and investment in Russia, exchange programs and made some progress on nuclear cooperation.
 Burns himself admitted that Georgia was the aggressor in South Ossetia. Putin referred to Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili as an “American puppet.”
 Burns, The Back Channel, 224.
 In 2011, following the Arab Spring uprising against Mubarak, Burns played a key role in the Obama administration’s embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 279.
 Michael T. Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 1-3, 97; Ian Rutledge, Addicted to Oil: America’s Relentless Drive for Energy Security (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005); Ken Silverstein, The Secret World of Oil (London: Verso, 2014), 21-22.
 George Abel Schreiner, The Craft Sinister: A Diplomatic-Political History of the Great War and Its Causes (New York: G. Albert Gayer, 1920).
 Burns, The Back Channel, 148.
 See Edward S. Herman, “Lockerbie and the Propaganda System: Release of Al-Megrahi Evokes Selective History,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, October 1, 2009; John Ashton, Megrahi: You Are My Jury: The Lockerbie Evidence (London: Birlinn, 2012); http://www.lockerbietruth.com/.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 224, 413. For an objective view of the secession of Crimea, see Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016).
 Burns, The Back Channel, 206, 223, 242. For an acknowledgment that the evidence is circumstantial regarding Putin and political assassinations, see Amy Knight’s anti-Putin book, Putin’s Killers: The Kremlin and the Art of Political Assassination (New York: Biteback Publishing, 2019); and for a skeptical view about the election, see articles by Joe Lauria at Consortium News.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 288.
 Andrei Nekrasov and Torstein Grude, The Magnitsky Act: Behind the Scenes (Piraya Films, 2016); Alex Krainer, The Killing of William Browder: Deconstructing Bill Browder’s Dangerous Deception (Monaco: Equilibrium, 2017). See also Luci Komisar, “The Man Behind the Magnitsky Act: Did Bill Browder’s Tax Troubles in Russia Color Push for Sanctions,” 100 Reporters, October 20, 2017.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 255.
 See Seymour M. Hersh, The Killing of Osama bin Laden (London: Verso, 2017); Noam Chomsky, “The Revenge Killing of Osama bin Laden,” In These Times, May 31, 2011, https://inthesetimes.com/article/the-revenge-killing-of-osama-bin-laden; David Ray Griffen, Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive? (Northhampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2009). In an unusual occurrence that begs further investigation, most members of Navy Seal Team Six who were involved in Bin Laden’s killing died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on an ill-fated mission.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 148.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 313.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 313, 314. For a transcript of the speech, see The Illegal War on Libya (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2012), McKinney, ed., 253-274.
 Burns may have also helped forge contacts with anti-Qaddafi dissidents who were supplied with arms on the eve of the uprising.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 325.
 Jeremy Kuzmarov, Obama’s Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State (Atlanta; Clarity Press, 2019), 267.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 403.
 Burns, The Back Channel, 289.
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
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