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Bill Burns was a career diplomat and pillar of the State Department for decades, rising to Deputy Secretary in Barack Obama's second administration. He's been ambassador to Russia and was instrumental in setting up the Iran nuclear deal. For much of the last two years, he's served as director of the CIA. Judy Woodruff sat down with Burns at the CIA headquarters for a rare interview.
Bill Burns has been a career diplomat, a pillar of the State Department for decades, rising to the number two job, deputy secretary, in President Obama's second term. He's been ambassador to Russia and was instrumental in setting up the Iran nuclear deal.
But, for much of the past two years, he's worn a different hat for President Biden, director of the CIA. It was a change of venue and a scene for him, but not of the mission, as he sees it. And with a world full of direct and urgent challenges, these are not quiet days at the CIA.
I met Director Burns this morning at the sprawling CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia for a rare interview.
Director Bill Burns, thank you very much for talking with us.
You have been in this job for the last two years. As you reflect on it, is this country safer, more secure, do you think, than when you took office or not?
William Burns, CIA Director:
Well, I hope that's the case.
And we certainly work very hard at CIA around the world to try and help keep Americans safe as well. And we recognize that this is a moment of profound transformation on that international landscape. And then you add to that the revolution in technology, which is transforming the way not just the world works, but the way the intelligence profession works as well.
We see the rise of major power competition with China and with Russia, and then continuing challenges of terrorism and other kinds of problems around the world too. So, it's never dull. We have our hands full, but I'm deeply proud of the work that the CIA is doing on all of those issues.
Let's talk about Ukraine.
I mean, right now, Vladimir Putin is giving every indication he's not backing down, he's going to stick with this war of attrition as long as he possibly can, that nothing will deter him.
Is he right?
No, I think he's wrong.
I think he's wrong in that bet, just as he was wrong, profoundly wrong, in the bet that he made on February 24, when he launched this war. Tactically, I think what we see, at least at CIA, is a reduced tempo in fighting between the two militaries as winter sets in.
The Russian military is badly battered right now. The Ukrainian military is determined to keep up the pressure, build on their battlefield successes of the last several months. But they also need time to refit and resupply.
But there's nothing at all reduced about the tempo of Putin's increasingly brutal attacks against Ukrainian civilians and Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.
But the cost to the United States, weaponry, ammunition, Europeans, and what they're sacrificing for this war to go on. you're not concerned that he could outlast all that?
I don't underestimate for a moment the burdens, the challenges that this war poses for Ukrainians, first and foremost, but for all of us who support Ukraine.
But, strategically, I think, in many ways, Putin's war has thus far been a failure for Russia. The Russian military has performed poorly and suffered huge losses. The Russian economy has suffered long-term damage. Most of the progress that the Russian middle class has made over the last 30 years is being destroyed.
I think Russia's reputation has been badly undermined and its weaknesses have been exposed. The Russian population seems increasingly uneasy about the costs of war as well. The fact that Putin, when he launched at the end of September a partial mobilization, the reality was that more Russians of military age fled the country than he was able to round up and send to the front.
So he's got a lot of challenges as well.
That all may be the case, but he seems perfectly secure.
I mean, all those economic hits that the Russians took, the sanctions, the country's still charging along, still functioning. And he — I mean, do you see any real threat to his position?
Well, I think there's an unease across the Russian population right now.
There's unease from some more hawkish critics, who are — who see the conduct of the war as being flawed. And then you have the unease I mentioned before of lots of Russians of military age, young Russian men, fleeing the country as well.
So, I'm not trying to suggest that that poses an immediate threat to his grip on power. He's created a very secure and repressive authoritarian regime, in his eyes. But I think you're beginning to see increasing unease in Russia about the war and an accumulation of damage to the Russian economy and to Russians' future, which is going to take a toll over time.
Putin has spoken about, suggested the idea of retaliation.
What are you most worried about from him, beyond Ukraine?
Well, he's done — there's been some, I think, very dangerous nuclear saber-rattling that Putin and others around him have done.
That was part of the conversation I had with one of my Russian intelligence counterparts, Sergey Naryshkin.
Where do you see that going?
Well, I think the saber-rattling is meant to intimidate. We don't see any clear evidence today of plans to use tactical nuclear weapons.
We have made very clear, the president has made very clear to the Russians what the serious risks of that would be. I think it's also been very useful that Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi in India have also raised their concerns about use of nuclear weapons as well. I think that's also having an impact on the Russians.
The other thing that we have seen in the last weeks is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, General Milley, is speaking about winter may be a time for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.
How do you see that?
Most conflicts end in negotiations, but that requires a seriousness on the part of the Russians in this instance that I don't think we see.
At least, it's not our assessment that the Russians are serious at this point about a real negotiation.
I want to bring China into the conversation. What's your level of concern right now about cooperation between the Russians and the Chinese?
Well, I think Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have formed a pretty close partnership over recent years.
A few weeks before Putin launched his invasion in Ukraine, when they met at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, they proclaimed a friendship without limits. So, it turns out that there actually are some limits to that partnership, at least in terms of President Xi's reluctance to supply the kind of military assistance to Putin that he's asked for in the course of the war in Ukraine.
So, I wouldn't underestimate for a moment the commitment between the Chinese and Russian leaderships to that partnership. But it's been interesting to watch the Chinese leadership's reaction to the war in Ukraine. I don't think any foreign leader has paid more careful attention to that war and Russia's poor military performance than Xi Jinping has, as he thinks about his own ambitions in Taiwan and elsewhere.
Do you believe there are near-term ambitions on his part to take over Taiwan? And I mean in this next year or so.
Yes, I'm not sure I would measure it in terms of months or a year, but I would not underestimate for a moment, nor do any of my colleagues here at CIA underestimate, his ambition to control Taiwan, in other words, to unify Beijing and Taiwan on the PRC's terms.
He's insisted publicly that his preference is to do that by means short of the use of force. But we know that he's also instructed his military leadership to be ready by 2027 to launch a war. And so I think the honest answer is, the further you get into this decade, the greater the risks of a military conflict.
What is your sense of urgency about all this?
My colleague Nick Schifrin spoke this week with the head of the Indo-Pacific Command. And he spoke about it being urgent.
Yes. No, no, I share that sense of urgency as well.
And we have no higher priority at CIA than not just Taiwan, but the longer term geopolitical challenge that Xi's China poses. And we have, over the course of the two years I have been director, established a new mission center, which is sort of the organizational building block at CIA. It's the only single country mission center we have, focused on China.
And we have moved resources, people, priority in that direction because it's a global competition.
Clearly, the world was watching as there were these unprecedented revolts in China across the country about COVID restrictions.
Those seem to have died down somewhat, but do you think they weakened Xi Jinping?
No, I think he emerged from the recent Party Congress having consolidated power in the strongest position of any Chinese leader probably since Mao.
Having said that, his leadership is not 10-feet-tall. China, as we saw in the expressions of frustration in the street over zero COVID policy, as we see in the reality that China's economic growth figures are now at historic lows, we see in the reality that given this Chinese leadership's priority for control and order, that sometimes comes at the expense of economic common sense as well.
And that can have an impact on technological innovation and everything else over time.
One other question about China is their very popular social media platform app TikTok.
Your domestic counterpart, the head of the FBI, Chris Wray, has said it's a threat to U.S. national security. Do you agree?
I mean, I think it's a genuine concern, I think, for the U.S. government, in the sense that, because the parent company of TikTok is a Chinese company, the Chinese government is able to insist upon extracting the private data of a lot of TikTok users in this country, and also to shape the content of what goes on to TikTok as well to suit the interests of the Chinese leadership.
I think those are real challenges and a source of real concern.
As you know, some American lawmakers want to ban TikTok.
Do you think that's a good idea?
Well, and my role, see, this is where, blessedly, is in an intelligence — in an intelligence role. I'm not going to offer judgments on those kind of policy or legislative decisions.
What I would underscore, though, is that it's genuinely troubling to see what the Chinese government could do to manipulate TikTok.
And what would you recommend people tell their children or their young friends about whether to use TikTok?
I'd be really careful.
You want to say anything more than that?
No, really careful.
These unprecedented countrywide protests that Iran has seen after the death of a young woman in police custody, the morality police, is the regime now in serious jeopardy as a result of all this?
I think what struck our analysts at CIA is both the duration of those protests, now almost three months on, and their scope, because they seem to cut across Iranian society, cut across ethnicities, socioeconomic groups.
It is about a growing number of Iranians who are fed up, who are fed up with economic decay, with corruption, with the social restrictions that especially affect Iranian women. They are fed up with political oppression, fed up with the denial of basic human dignity.
So, in the short term, I would — I don't think the Iranian regime perceives an immediate threat to its grip. It still has some very practiced habits of repression and brutality that it's continuing to employ. In the long term, though, I think the reality is that this is an Iranian regime does not have good answers for what's on the minds of a very young population, 70 percent of which today is under the age of 30.
Can those protests continue, though, given the number of arrests, the people who are dead, and now executions?
I think they can.
And it's been a remarkable indication of both that frustration that I mentioned before and also the genuine courage of people out in the streets. And so this has gone on for just about three months now, and it can continue for some time.
And now, of course, we see Iran's involvement with the Russians in Ukraine using the drones.
How worried are you about that relationship now?
Well, quite worried. I mean, you know, historically, there's a lot of mistrust between Russians and Iranians, but they need each other right now.
And what's beginning to emerge is at least the beginnings of a full-fledged defense partnership between Russia and Iran, with the Iranians supplying drones to the Russians, which are killing Ukrainian civilians as we speak today, and the Russians beginning to look at ways in which, technologically or technically, they can support the Iranians, which poses real threats to Iran's own neighborhood, to many of our friends and partners in Iran's neighborhood as well.
Where do you see that going, that lethal closeness or lethal relationship?
Well, I think it's already having an impact on the battlefield in Ukraine, again, costing the lives of a lot of innocent Ukrainians.
And I think it can have an even more dangerous impact on the Middle East as well if it continues. So, it's something that we take very, very seriously.
Just a question about North Korea.
There was another test today of a — I guess a solid-state engine missile. The U.S. has no eyes on the ground in the country. Is that right?
Where is that headed? Where do you see that regime going? And do you see any evidence that the U.S. can head off the worst kind of attack that the North Koreans may be capable of?
I think what we have seen over the last year, just as you said, Judy, is quite troubling, more than 50 launches of North Korean missiles of various ranges, and clearly preparations for what would be the seventh nuclear test by the North Korean regime as well.
I want to ask about your role in the administration.
President Biden has asked you to undertake a number of trips abroad. You travel — you were just telling me you travel a lot because you want to stay in touch with CIA people around the world.
But the president has given you what looks to be diplomatic responsibilities. Why do you think he's doing that?
Occasionally, I'm asked to do things in Afghanistan last year, with regard to Russia, Ukraine, which takes advantage of some of my previous experience over three-and-a-half decades as a career diplomat as well.
And I'm always glad to do that. But it's always in support of policymakers. It's not a substitute for that. And I do travel a good bit overseas. And it's also about taking care of our people, because we ask a lot of our people and our families at CIA, especially since 9/11. They have been doing some very hard jobs in some very hard places around the world.
So, my most profound obligation as a leader is to take care of them, so they can conduct our mission as an agency as effectively as they do.
Does the division, political division across this country right now, which is pretty clear, in any way affect the work that you do?
It can be a challenge, to be honest, I mean, in the sense that we are an apolitical organization.
Our job is to provide the best intelligence that we can collect and analyze to the president, to policymakers, to discuss that with our Oversight Committees in the Congress as well, and to do that without any policy agenda, any whiff of politics.
You know, over the years, I have worked for six administrations of both parties, and never seen myself as a very partisan person. And so we work very hard at CIA to play things down the middle as well and to be as honest and straightforward as we can. I have seen too many instances over the course of my 40 years now almost in government where we get ourselves in trouble as an agency and as a country if we forget those basic truths that we need to provide the best possible intelligence we can without a hint of partisanship or a policy agenda.
Well, CIA Director Bill Burns, we thank you very much.
Appreciate your talking with us.
Thanks, Judy. It's great to be with you.
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Judy Woodruff is a senior correspondent and the former anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour. She has covered politics and other news for five decades at NBC, CNN and PBS.
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