William Burns, President Biden’s nominee to head the CIA, said Wednesday the agency would have to “work harder” to keep up with the pace of technological change—both in developing and employing its own espionage capabilities and in detecting and addressing cyber and other threats from adversaries like China and Russia.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Burns also said the recent SolarWinds hack that compromised several federal agencies and private-sector companies should put the government and intelligence community on notice. The Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing on Feb. 23 regarding the SolarWinds hack—a hearing Burns said he watched with interest.
“As [the SolarWinds] hearing underscored, the SolarWinds attack is a harsh wakeup call about the vulnerabilities of supply chains and companies in the public and private sectors,” said Burns. “If this is a harsh wakeup call, then I think it’s essential for the CIA to work even harder to develop capabilities to help detect these kinds of attacks when they come from foreign players.”
Burns, who spent 33 years in the Foreign Service serving a diplomat in Russia and the Middle East, told senators his four core priorities would be technology, China, people and partnerships. With China in mind, Burns vowed to recruit more Mandarin-speaking agents and to review how to shorten the time it takes for recruits to obtain security clearances.
Broadly, Burns said he’d look to build morale at the agency in part by speaking “truth to power” and providing unvarnished intelligence to policymakers regardless of their politics. Burns made clear, however, that the CIA must improve the advancement of its own technological capabilities, and told committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., that doing so “is at the top of the list of priorities, if confirmed.”
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., characterized the federal government as “retarded as it relates to our ability to adapt to new technologies” and asked Burns what he might do to address that challenge.
“We’re slow, we fight it,” said Burr, noting the government’s passivity has allowed adversaries to make technological gains on the United States.
Burns said the CIA would have to “work harder” and adapt to a new world where private-sector companies often lead the way in tech advancement. In addition, Burns said he’d push for more partnerships between the private sector and intelligence community, “So we can not only keep pace with technological progress but get out ahead of it.”
“The agency is going to have to adapt, and I’m entirely confident the women and men in the CIA will adapt to that,” Burns said.