Biden's CIA director pick faces senators in confirmation hearing

US Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns listens during a press conference at the US Department of the Treasury July 11, 2013 in Washington, DC. Burns will face questions from lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb 24. By Zachary Cohen, Alex Marquardt and Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) -- President Joe Biden's pick to lead the CIA, William Burns, is facing questions from lawmakers Wednesday during a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, his final hurdle on the path to being confirmed as the first lifelong diplomat to serve as director of the nation's preeminent spy agency.

In his opening statement, Burns stressed that intelligence must not be political, marking a clear distinction from the approach taken by former President Donald Trump.

"I learned that good intelligence, delivered with honesty and integrity, is America's first line of defense. I learned that intelligence professionals have to tell policymakers what they need to hear, even if they don't want to hear it," Burns said. "And I learned that politics must stop where intelligence work begins."

"That is exactly what President Biden expects of CIA. It was the first thing he told me when he asked me to take on this role," he added. "He said he wants the agency to give it to him straight -- and I pledged to do just that, and to defend those who do the same."

Burns also outlined how he will approach China if confirmed as CIA director.

"There are, however, a growing number of areas in which Xi's China is a formidable, authoritarian adversary -- methodically strengthening its capabilities to steal intellectual property, repress its own people, bully its neighbors, expand its global reach, and build influence in American society," he told lawmakers.

"For CIA, that will mean intensified focus and urgency -- continually strengthening its already-impressive cadre of China specialists, expanding its language skills, aligning personnel and resource allocation for the long-haul, and employing a whole-of-agency approach to the operational and analytical challenges of this crucial threat," he said.

Burns, a respected veteran diplomat who has served in posts around the world from the Reagan to the Obama administrations, was tapped by Biden as his nominee for CIA director after other top contenders faced criticism for their previous support of torture programs.

Former acting CIA Director Michael Morell, who had been under consideration by Biden, was assailed as unacceptable by top Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the Intelligence Committee, had criticized Morell as a "torture apologist" for his previous suggestions that "enhanced interrogation" of terrorists was effective and moral.

Burns, who is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike in the foreign policy arena, is expected to receive a far easier confirmation. If confirmed he won't be a member of Biden's Cabinet, which represents a change from the Trump administration, but a return to the status the job had in the Obama administration.

Haines, who has already been confirmed, represents the intelligence community in the Cabinet. Haines and Burns have a long-standing relationship and during an appearance last year at Columbia University, she praised Burns for being well known for providing thoughtful feedback during his time in government.

"Everyone always wanted to send their memos to Bill," Haines told the audience.

Burns has talked extensively about the damage he believes the Trump administration has inflicted on the United States' foreign policy. He warned of the dangerous consequences of President Donald Trump not accepting election defeat in a prescient essay last August in the Atlantic.

"If he loses, I doubt that he will suddenly embrace the traditional bipartisan commitment to effective transitions. At best, he'll be consumed by efforts to rationalize his defeat and paint the election as rigged; at worst, he'll seek to contest or undermine the result," Burns wrote. "Like so many other features of the Trump era, the transition would bear little resemblance to any before, or any of the many I served through as a career diplomat. The costs of confusion, mixed signals, and bureaucratic turmoil could be very high."

While all Biden nominees face an easier path to confirmation in a Democrat-controlled Senate, Burns' role in the Benghazi investigation could also be revisited. He testified at a House hearing in 2012 after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was unable to because of a concussion.

"We learned some very hard and painful lessons in Benghazi," Burns said. "We are already acting on them. We have to do better. We owe it to our colleagues who lost their lives in Benghazi."

CIA deputy director David Cohen has served in the role of acting director as Burns awaits confirmation.

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