CIA Director William Burns addresses a Senate panel.

CIA Director William Burns addresses a Senate panel. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

(Tribune News Service) — Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns has emerged as the main player in US efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas, tapping decades of contacts and leveraging his ability to move through the region quietly to tackle one of the US’s gravest foreign-policy crises.

Recent weeks have seen Burns - an experienced former US ambassador - meet with the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, as well as with top officials from Qatar and other regional players in the effort to free dozens of hostages Hamas militants captured in their Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The shuttle diplomacy by Burns, who speaks Arabic among other languages, has quickly gained him a reputation among Arab governments as the key US interlocutor in the current crisis, according to several regional officials who asked not to be identified discussing private matters.

In effect, he’s become one of the US’s top diplomats as well as its most prominent spy. That’s alongside multiple trips to the region by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and even President Joe Biden.

Burns has worked closely with Barnea, his fellow spy chief, and was central to negotiating an earlier pause in the fighting in Gaza, working together with White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and others, according to the people. In recent days, Burns met with the families of US hostages held in Gaza, underscoring his continuing role in the process even as talks have stalled, one of the people said.

Spokespeople for the White House National Security Council declined to comment on the role being played by Burns. The CIA also declined to comment.

Burns’s prominence is born in part of necessity given the powerful role that the intelligence agencies play in Israel and the rest of the Middle East. US officials, who asked not to be identified discussing internal administration dynamics, point out that Blinken and Austin have engaged in crucial diplomacy looking to shape the nature of the conflict - as well as thinking about what comes after the fighting ends.

But Burns has unique attributes that have added to his prominence. First, there’s his unique experience as a former US ambassador and senior State Department official. And unlike Blinken or Austin, Burns doesn’t have to announce his schedule, bring reporters along on his travels or hold news conferences. That ability to move quietly makes him uniquely suited to the complex dynamics of the Middle East, where regional actors would rather keep their conversations confidential.

“An empowered CIA director, especially one who has personal familiarity with interlocutors - is uniquely equipped for intelligence diplomacy,” said Ted Singer, a 35-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service who served as station chief in four Middle East capitals. “The messages can be delivered discretely and cut through diplo-speak and public posturing.”

Burns is building on the increasingly important role CIA directors have played in US foreign policy. One of Burns’s predecessors, Michael Pompeo, oversaw former President Donald Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. George Tenet, CIA director under former President Bill Clinton, played a similar role in the Middle East peace process.

Now, Burns has taken that job to a new level. He’s been deeply involved in almost every major foreign policy crisis since he became CIA director in 2021. He traveled to Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine to deliver a warning to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. He reportedly held a meeting with the de facto leader of the Taliban as the Afghan government was collapsing. And he visited China when tensions were running high.

“There is a long history of presidents of both parties using senior CIA officers to conduct foreign policy,” said Michael Morell, a former acting director of the agency. “Presidents often are lucky to have CIA directors with diplomatic skills, and it would be foolish not to use them. That is certainly the case with Director Burns.”

The CIA chief’s role is also a function of Biden’s trust in Burns, whom he elevated to the status of a cabinet official in July.

“Bill has always given me clear, straightforward analysis that prioritizes the safety and security of the American people, reflecting the integral role the CIA plays in our national security decision-making at this critical time,” Biden said in a statement at the time.

Burns brings decades of experience to his current Mideast assignment. A 2013 article in The Atlantic described him as “the White House’s secret diplomatic weapon” and noted that then-National Security Adviser Colin Powell put him in charge of Middle East policy in 1987 - at the age of 32. He was also a key architect of the nuclear deal with Iran that came to fruition in 2016.

And he’s suggested that spying and diplomacy have a lot in common. Burns told Morell in a 2019 podcast that diplomacy is “a form of reconnaissance.”

“It oftentimes is a quiet endeavor,” he said in the podcast. “It operates in back channels, out of sight and out of mind.”


©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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