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Blog Post | January 12, 2021

With Bill Burns At CIA, A Hopeful Move Toward Civil Service Revitalization

2020 Election/TransitionForeign PolicyGovernment Capacity
With Bill Burns At CIA, A Hopeful Move Toward Civil Service Revitalization

At the Revolving Door Project, we have frequently emphasized the importance of strengthening the civil service to ensure government works for public service and doesn’t cater to the interest of powerful people and corporations. We warned about how too much reliance on political appointments in the executive branch reduces accountability, citing academic research that political appointees perform worse than career managers. Especially in the Trump era, we have seen numerous examples of political appointees using the government for personal gain. 

Biden’s selection of William Burns, a career diplomat, as his CIA director should therefore be widely praised by progressives as a step towards restoring the civil service and depoliticizing the American intelligence community. Burns is a civil servant who achieved the highest rank in the Foreign Service, Career Ambassador, before serving as the Deputy Secretary of State from 2011-2014. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005, and Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 until 2001. Burns was only the second serving career diplomat to become Deputy Secretary of State in 2011, where he led secret talks with Iran in 2013 and helped facilitate the Iran Nuclear Deal.

After leaving the State Department in 2014, Burns declined to cash out on his government experience in the corporate world, instead serving as the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While working at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns warned against the Trump Administration’s failures of diplomacy, continuing his pattern of speaking up against decisions that harmed the United States despite the political consequences. Similarly, in 2002, Burns wrote a memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell warning of the dangers of U.S. intervention in Iraq.

Another dangerous legacy of the Trump Administration is the extreme politicization of the intelligence community. Trump fired the chief watchdog of the intelligence community and elevated people like Mike Pompeo, who twisted and withheld intelligence to match political goals. In 2018, Trump punished former CIA Director John Brennan for failing to do his political bidding after Brennan presented evidence to Trump that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic argued that the episode was intended to “strike fear” in civil servants to make sure their intelligence agreed with the politics of the moment.

However, William Burns’ nomination has received bipartisan praise. His long history of nonpartisan diplomacy and his dedication to public service above personal gain promises a shift away from both of these trends. Biden should continue prioritizing the promotion of competent, dedicated civil servants in his administration. 

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