‘Red Flag’: Experts Raise Concerns Over History Of Biden CIA Director Overseeing Intel Push Into China

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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National security experts are raising concerns over CIA Director William Burns’ previous involvement with a D.C. institution that employed numerous Chinese Communist Party members, in light of his efforts to reorient the agency toward addressing the threat from China.

Recent reports have shed light on the historic shift underway in the U.S. intelligence community to rebuild a network of human spies in China, and outpace Beijing’s adaptation to a rapidly changing technological environment. However, Burns previously headed a think tank that hired people and groups professing membership to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a fact that experts say raises red flags about Burns’ credibility.

“The interconnectivity does raise some concerns given the nature of the position and duties therein,” Scott McGregor, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police intelligence official, told the DCNF. “Insider threats can manifest in even the most secure and trusted agencies.”

Before Biden tapped Burns to lead the CIA, the former diplomat served as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from March 2015 to 2021.

During his tenure, the organization received up to $2 million in donations from a Chinese businessman who was a member of two organizations linked to China’s United Front global influence operation, the DCNF previously reported. Carnegie also employed undisclosed CCP members while Burns was president.

“The key thing is: has a person awakened to the China threat or not? So the question of Bill Burns is whether he’s changed his views of China, and he says he has,” Heritage Foundation senior fellow for China strategy Michael Pillsbury, who once believed China would be a friend of the U.S., told the DCNF.

Burns has recently signaled his toughness toward China; in speeches, Burns follows the Biden administration’s pattern in referring to China as the United States’ most threatening competitor, and told Congress under oath at his 2021 confirmation hearing that “adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.”

However, his oversight of a prominent think tank, relied upon for policy suggestions and research by Washington’s top officials, that embraced Chinese influence operatives casts a shadow over Burns’ efforts to guide such monumental change in American intelligence, experts say.

“Establishment D.C. think tank ‘engagement’ with strategic competitors and adversarial countries does raise a red flag in terms of fitness to lead operational agencies responsible for deterring and defeating those entities,” Steve Yates, a former deputy national security adviser in the White House and chair of the China Policy Initiative at the America First Policy Institute, told the DCNF.

‘Strategic Long-Term Challenge’

Under Burns, the CIA is racing to catch up espionage capabilities in China after a devastating compromise of secret communication lines between 2010 and 2012 exposed American assets in Beijing, including a high ranking CCP official, The Wall Street Journal reported. The nationalistic and hostile government in Beijing terminated those assets, leaving a gaping hole in U.S. intelligence on China that, more than a decade later, the agency has not filled.

The CIA is reorganizing and funding efforts to better address China, and remains “intensely engaged on the strategic long-term challenge posed by the PRC,” Burns recently told the WSJ. Burns established a China mission center in 2021 that brings together officials from across the agency, as well as a technology intelligence center, Reuters reported.

Biden’s 2022 National Defense Strategy singles out China as by far the greatest challenger to global stability and American security. The CIA budget has doubled under the Biden administration to address the rising threat, according to the NYT.

The CIA and China’s main intelligence directorate, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), are engaged in a tense battle to outmatch intelligence capabilities increasingly dependent on futuristic technology, The New York Times reported. But, the MSS has an edge with an AI-based system that can create files near-instantaneously on targets around the world allowing Beijing to identify connections and vulnerabilities of potential targets.

The U.S. has also disclosed expansive MSS operations in the U.S., some tied to influence groups that may seem innocuous on the surface. In April, the Department of Justice charged two men for allegedly running a secret police station to “monitor and intimidate dissidents” shrouded under cover of an “overseas service center” at New York cultural organization; China’s United Front Work Department, which coordinates worldwide influence operations, runs other so-called service centers in U.S. cities.

“The deeper the establishment think tank leadership goes in engagements with CCP ‘friendship’ organizations, the more divorced they become from the interests of grassroots America, the less threatening their Chinese counterparts appear, and the more open to CCP manipulation they become,” Yates said.

‘United Front’

Experts said that Burns could be vulnerable to CCP charms given his history of engagement with such organizations.

During Burns’ tenure as president of Carnegie, the organization received up to $2 million in donations from a Chinese businessman who was a member of two organizations linked to the CCP as well as the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF), a Hong Kong-based think tank, the DCNF’s previous reporting shows.

Zhang Yichen, head of China-based CITIC Consulting, joined Carnegie’s board of advisors and has served as a member of the Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), his biography shows. The CPPCC contributes to governance of China, describing itself as “a united front organization under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and an organ for various other political parties, mass organizations and personages of various social circles to take part in the running of the state,” according to the website.

Both CUSEF and Zhang are tied China’s United Front Work Department, which aims to sway public opinion in the U.S. to favor China-first policies, although it denies any connection to the People’s Republic of China government, according to research from the Jamestown Foundation.

Despite Burns’ testimony to Congress that he terminated Carnegie’s relationship with CUSEF shortly after he took over in 2015, Carnegie’s relationship with CUSEF endured until 2017.

Carnegie also employed at least 20 undisclosed CCP members as policy experts while Burns was president, the DCNF previously found. They worked at Carnegie’s Washington, D.C. location and a joint China-U.S. research center at Tsinghua University in Beijing, a partnership established by Burns’ predecessor, according to a press release.

At least four of the CCP members came on during Burns’ presidency, such as Yang Xiaoping, an expert on South Asia.

Carnegie also brought on experts and advisors with ties to the Chinese government and organizations that aim to underwrite China’s ambitions of supplanting the U.S. as the world’s economic, military and cultural power. For instance, Carnegie added Jia Qingguo, a member of the CPPCC and Foreign Affairs Committee, in 2017, and Lyu Jinghua, a retired colonel from the People’s Liberation Army, in 2018.

Also while Burns was president, Carnegie introduced Congressional staffers to members of the MSS, the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party and the intelligence wing of the People’s Liberation Army during a trip to Beijing.

Washington experts “would have a hard time denying that any of their leaders would have been deemed unfit to run a national security agency during the first Cold War if they had these kinds of interactions with Soviet counterparts,” Yates told the DCNF.

A Key Figure In The Biden Administration

Burns told Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in his 2021 testimony he directed Carnegie to cut off ties with CUSEF “for precisely the reasons” Rubio raised initially: that China uses educational and cultural programs to influence the direction of U.S. policy, as well as its technological, scientific and cultural development, and that Beijing’s United Front operations co-opt and neutralize influential people or organizations in the U.S. to further Beijing’s political agenda.

Groups like CUSEF, which are ostensibly independent, private organizations, serve as a means of influence laundering in the U.S, Burns agreed in written answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee ahead of the confirmation hearing.

Rubio later said he was confident in Burns’ ability to lead the CIA.

A former career diplomat, Burns has also undertaken sensitive diplomatic missions on behalf of President Joe Biden. The president elevated Burns to a cabinet position in 2023, his biography shows, a largely symbolic move but indicative of the outsized role the veteran statesman continues to play in Biden’s foreign policy.

“There is every reason to question whether that experience left him a bit near-sighted with regard to CCP efforts to infiltrate and manipulate elite institutions and individuals in the U.S. policy community,” Yates told the DCNF.

“In the case of Burns, I would take into consideration the possibility of counterintelligence operations but do find the interaction something that should be addressed by an oversight committee to ensure the integrity of the position and that no wrongdoing is taking place,” McGregor said.

The CIA declined to comment.

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