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CIA Director On America's Biggest Challenges

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Before he ran the CIA, Bill Burns helped run the State Department, served five presidents over more than three decades as a diplomat, and you see signs of it all over his new office at the top of CIA headquarters. On the wall above his computer monitors, for example - three framed pictures of Spaso House, Burns' official residence in Moscow during the years he was U.S. ambassador to Russia. So Bill Burns has history in Russia, history tangling with Vladimir Putin, as you're about to hear. And that's where we begin this final part of my conversation this week with Burns. I asked him - any sign that the pace of cyberattacks emanating from Russia is slowing?

WILLIAM BURNS: I mean, we'll see, is the honest answer, as the president has said, because the attacks have taken two forms. I mean, one is sort of state-sponsored attacks, like we saw in SolarWinds. And then the other are ransomware attacks as well. And, you know, the president...

KELLY: You say since Geneva and the summit with President Putin.

BURNS: Yeah.

KELLY: Any sign that...

BURNS: Well, there was certainly one incident, you know, a group called REvil was responsible for. We'll see what comes after that. I mean, the president, both in Geneva and then in a subsequent telephone conversation with President Putin, made very clear the priority that he attaches to this and the reality that, you know, we will take action if the Russian government doesn't take action against groups operating in its territory. You know, in my experience in dealing with Vladimir Putin over the years - and most of my gray hair came from, you know, my service in Russia and dealing with Putin's Russia - he's not shy about controlling things that, you know, happen on or from his territory as well. So this is a test of seriousness on this issue as well.

KELLY: I keep hearing from you, from President Biden, from other senior members of the administration - we will take action if Russia doesn't. Is there a timeline on that? 'Cause this has been happening for years.

BURNS: It has.

KELLY: I understand Biden hasn't been president for years.

BURNS: No, it has.

KELLY: But how long before...

BURNS: No, I don't know. And this is where, you know, in my former role as a policymaker...

KELLY: I know.

BURNS: I might have suggested something. But, you know, the president has indicated that period is finite. And he's talked about - you know, we'll see over the course of the next six or 12 months. And so we'll see.

KELLY: Yeah. China - in the CIA's current estimation, what is the probability that the virus that causes COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan?

BURNS: Well, as you know, Mary Louise, this is something the president has asked the director of national intelligence - and CIA is playing a very active role in this process - to try to come up with our best judgment on that issue. And the honest answer today is that we cannot offer a definitive conclusion about whether, you know, this originated in a lab accident or whether it originated in a natural transmission from infected animals to human beings.

We are working very hard on this. It's not an academic problem. I mean, as we think ahead, not just to the United States but in other parts of the world, about how do you prevent another pandemic crisis of this magnitude, in order to do that it's extremely important to get to the bottom of this. And the Chinese government has not been transparent, has not fully cooperated in the investigation WHO's initially, and it's more recently suggested it's going to refuse to cooperate in a follow-up as well. And that is deeply unfortunate. We will continue to do everything we can to collect on this work with the rest of the intelligence community and provide the best answers we can on this. But as I say...

KELLY: Is it possible it's unknowable, though?

BURNS: It is possible, like so many things, that we never - we may never be able to come to a definitive judgment. But it's not going to be for lack of hard work or effort.

KELLY: Does the CIA have enough case officers who speak Mandarin?

BURNS: We need to increase the number. You know, again, competition with China is not solely a function of how many Mandarin speakers we have. I mean, if you're competing...

KELLY: You use that as shorthand for expertise, knowledge.

BURNS: We do. Now, we need to attract - and I welcome, you know, any of your listeners out there who are thinking about this because it's serving your...

KELLY: This is a recruitment pitch - yeah.

BURNS: Yeah, it is 'cause serving your country, I think is - you know, has been enormously satisfying for me, now over almost 40 years. And I think CIA offers some real opportunities. And yes, we do need to strengthen our expertise, not only in Mandarin speakers but in people who can help on technology issues - again, the main arena for rivalry with China - and help us compete with China across the globe. So, you know, our ability to compete with China and Africa depends a lot on having officers working with diplomats who can navigate those societies and, you know, develop and exercise influence better than the Chinese can. And so that's also what we want to focus on.

KELLY: North Korea.

BURNS: Yes.

KELLY: Out of the headlines at the moment. Any doubt in your mind that they are continuing to build their missile program and their nuclear arsenal?

BURNS: No, no doubt at all. I mean, they have been steadily expanding both their missile and nuclear programs over the course of recent years. And so we at CIA stay, you know, very focused on this issue for all the obvious reasons, the kind of threats that poses not just to U.S. interests and potentially to the U.S. homeland but also to some of our closest allies in South Korea and in Japan.

KELLY: I mean, I remember when President Obama was preparing to exit office, and he invited President-elect Trump to come sit down with him. Obama was reported to have told Trump that North Korea was going to be the No. 1 national security threat, the scariest thing he was going to face. Where does it rank now?

BURNS: Well, I think it's still a very scary threat. And oftentimes something that's not in today's headlines will reemerge. And just given the nature of that leadership and the nature of its capabilities, which are expanding, I mean, you have to be very concerned about that. So, you know, you just can't afford to neglect a lot of the continuing challenges, whether it's North Korea or Iran or anyplace else, which, you know, are going to continue to occupy our time, attention and work.

KELLY: Having built your career as a diplomat, does the world look different sitting here at Langley? You know, you're dealing with the same countries...

BURNS: Yes.

KELLY: ...The same challenges, often the same leaders who you dealt with in your career at State. A challenge like China, for example...

BURNS: Yeah.

KELLY: Does it look different when you're looking at it from the perspective of doing espionage instead of doing diplomacy?

BURNS: I mean, it's different in the sense that as a diplomat over those 3 1/2 decades, I helped shape policy. And, you know, my job, our job at CIA, is to support and inform policymakers so they make the best possible choices. It's not to become policymakers. And so what that means, I think, is that our obligation is to deliver, in an unvarnished way, without any political or policy agenda, the best and most well-grounded intelligence that we can collect. You know, I've known and worked with and admired the president for a quarter century, and he made very clear to me when he asked me to take on this job that that's what he expects, even when the intelligence we provide is not convenient. I mean, the White House...

KELLY: Has that been tested yet, may I ask?

BURNS: Inevitably, it's tested. But I've asked my colleagues around the table in the White House Situation Room to kick me under the table if I start to stray back into policy issues 'cause that's not my role right now.

KELLY: No. The classic question, but I am always curious - out of all we've talked about, what keeps you awake at night?

BURNS: Oh, one thing I've learned, especially in this job over the last four months, that there's a certain amount of interrupted sleep that comes with the job or comes with the territory. You know, the honest answer is people. You know, we have at CIA, as we're talking here today, colleagues who are doing very hard jobs in very hard and dangerous places around the world. And so I worry about their safety, about their security. I have no doubt at all about their skill and dedication and ingenuity, but I worry about that.

KELLY: Director Burns, thank you.

BURNS: My pleasure.

KELLY: William Burns, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, speaking to us in his office on the seventh floor of headquarters, his first sit-down interview since he took the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEON NOX'S "TWISTED GETAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.