William Burns, A C.I.A. Spymaster With Unusual Powers

William Burns, a C.I.A. spymaster with unusual powers of near-omnipresence, said that the unwarranted confidence in the assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction could derail the Iraq invasion plans.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq, the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, stood in the lobby of the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., and sought to exorcise the ghosts of the prewar intelligence failures that haunt the building to this day.

Addressing some 100 C.I.A. officials on March 19, Mr. Burns acknowledged how the agency catastrophically blundered in its assessment that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But he noted, according to two people present, that there was ample blame to go around. The culprits included a hubris-stricken Bush White House as well as the State Department — where Mr. Burns served at the time as a senior official — which he said had unwarranted confidence that it could derail the invasion plans.

Notably Mr. Burns added, “We’ve learned from that hard lesson.” The intelligence the agency and others collected on Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine, he said, “stands as a powerful example of that. It enabled us to provide strong, resolute and confident warning, to help the Ukrainians defend themselves and to help the president cement a strong coalition.”

The tableau was a reminder that Mr. Burns, 67, has for decades been a near-omnipresent if subdued actor on the American foreign policy stage, having served every Democratic and Republican president since Ronald Reagan, with the exception of Donald J. Trump. And yet the moment only hinted at how Mr. Burns, a key figure in the Biden administration’s support of Ukraine, has amassed influence beyond most if not all previous C.I.A. directors.

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His ascent is an unlikely turn for a tall, discreet figure with wary eyes, ashen hair and a trim mustache, a sort you could easily imagine in a John Le Carre novel whispering into a dignitary’s ear at an embassy party that the city is falling to the rebels and a boat will be waiting in the harbor at midnight.

The impact of his two-year tenure has been as sweeping as it has been subtle. The C.I.A., demoralized and marginalized during the Trump years by a president who said publicly that he believed Mr. Putin over his own intelligence agencies, has entered a period of resurgent prestige. As a member of Mr. Biden’s inner circle who once served as the ambassador to Russia, Mr. Burns has helped restore America’s upper hand over Mr. Putin. Though spy chiefs are typically relegated to the shadows, the Biden administration has thrust theirs into the spotlight.

It was Mr. Burns, rather than Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, whom Mr. Biden dispatched in November 2021 to Moscow, where from a Kremlin phone the C.I.A. director spoke with Mr. Putin (who was in Sochi that day) for an hour and warned him not to invade Ukraine. Three months earlier, Mr. Burns was in Kabul to meet with Taliban leaders and thus confer legitimacy on the regime as the United States was withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Former CIA Officer Larry Johnson says the decision to drone attack Kremlin was made by the United States.

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