In an NPR interview, William Burns says he has appointed a senior officer who led the hunt for Osama bin Laden to head the investigation into ailments that has afflicted U.S. officials worldwide.



In the director of the Central Intelligence Agency's private office, seventh floor of Langley headquarters, there's a clock showing the time in five cities - Washington, London, Moscow, Delhi, Beijing. There's also a sweeping view out across the lush, green trees of suburban northern Virginia. And there are framed family photos, a whole table covered with them, right up next to the polished wooden desk of the director, William Burns. He is four months into the job. And when we went out to see him today, he talked about family and how honored he is to be sitting behind that desk.

WILLIAM BURNS: I remember when I was entering the Foreign Service many, many years ago, my dad - who recently passed away and was a very fine man and a very fine career military officer - wrote me a note. And in the note he said at one point, nothing can make you prouder than to serve your country with honor. And, you know, I saw the reality of that in 3 1/2 decades as a career diplomat, and I see it every day in my new role as director of CIA.

KELLY: This is Bill Burns' first sit-down interview as director, so it seemed appropriate to ask him what he wants to do with the place - what's top of the to-do list?

BURNS: The first thing I'd stress as you look at the CIA's role, you know, over the next decade is that all of us in the United States, I think, are at a really important moment of transition in the world. You know, we're no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, especially with the rise of China.

KELLY: Burns went on to call China, quote, "the single biggest geopolitical challenge that the United States faces, far out into the 21st century." No. 2 on his list of priorities is technology, which, again, he framed as the main arena for competition and rivalry with China. Three is partnerships - America's allies and partners in the world, which he says gives U.S. intelligence an edge in dealing with, quote, "lonelier powers" like China and Russia.

BURNS: And then fourth and certainly not least, our biggest asset - people and the need to continue to invest in the wonderful patriots who serve at CIA to make us a more diverse and inclusive agency because we cannot be effective around the world if everybody looks like me...

KELLY: Right.

BURNS: ...And to make sure we're taking care of people. So navigating through the covid pandemic - and we're still navigating through it. Although, you know, at CIA, we have fully vaccinated more than 95% of our officers, both at headquarters and overseas - and on issues like anomalous health incidents that pose real, serious risks and threats to our officers.

KELLY: OK, let's pause there. Anomalous health incidents; that is government-speak for what a lot of people call Havana syndrome - unexplained, mysterious health episodes that have afflicted U.S. officials, including a bunch of CIA officers, starting in 2016. People report strange sounds, a sensation of pressure in their heads. And in this part of the interview, we asked CIA Director Burns what's causing it.

BURNS: We still don't know for sure, but I am absolutely determined - and I've spent a great deal of time and energy on this in the four months I've been CIA director - to get to the bottom of the question of what and who caused this. You know, on my first day on the job here, literally, I started meeting with victims of these kind of incidents, and I've continued to do that both here at headquarters and when I've traveled overseas as well. And I take very seriously what they've experienced and the threat that these kind of incidents posed. And...

KELLY: So you're persuaded this is real.

BURNS: I'm certainly persuaded that what our officers and some family members, as well as other U.S. government employees, have experienced is real, and it's serious. And we are determined to get to the bottom of this. So, you know, the first challenge is to make sure people are getting the care that they deserve. So in my first week on the job, I went to Walter Reed Hospital, where our colleagues in the military have provided, you know, enormous support for those of our colleagues who have been affected by this, some of whom have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury as well. So I wanted to thank, you know, those officers and medical personnel there. We've tripled the number of full-time medical personnel at CIA who are focused on these issues. We have reduced the amount of time it used to take to wait to get into Walter Reed for our officers from more than eight weeks to less than two weeks. So we're very focused on that.

But at the same time, we have a very strong team of people, the best across CIA, focused on those questions of what and who, led by a very experienced and accomplished senior officer who, a decade ago, led the successful hunt for bin Laden. So we're throwing the very best we have at this issue because it is not only a very serious issue for our colleagues, as it is for others across the U.S. government, but it's a profound obligation, I think, of any leader, to take care of your people. And that's what I'm determined to do.

KELLY: How many cases are we talking?

BURNS: There are probably a couple of hundred - since Havana in 2016, there are probably a couple of hundred incidents across the U.S. government and across the globe. Of those couple of hundred, there's probably about a hundred in which, you know, my colleagues, my officers and family members have been affected.

KELLY: CIA are involved.


KELLY: The government describes these as anomalous health incidents, which sounds a lot more benign than attacks. Are they attacks?

BURNS: You know, I - you know, we use the term incidents across the U.S. government, but, you know, the truth is, Mary Louise, that what matters most to me is the reality that whatever you call these, they're harming...

KELLY: Yeah.

BURNS: ...You know, our colleagues here, my colleagues at CIA. And that's what we're determined to get to the bottom of.

KELLY: But when you say you're trying to figure out what's causing them and who is causing them...

BURNS: Right.

KELLY: ...That suggests that this is someone taking action.

BURNS: That's certainly a very strong possibility. You know, the National Academy of Sciences, a year ago, in a very extensive report that they did, suggested that the most plausible theory for what caused this was some form of directed energy. And that sort of narrows then, you know, the number of potential suspects who could have used this, have used it historically and have the reach to do this in more than one part of the world, too. So, yeah, we're very focused on getting to the bottom of this.

KELLY: Is it Russia?

BURNS: Could be, but I honestly cannot - I don't want to suggest until we can draw some more definitive conclusions who it might be. But there are a number of possibilities.

KELLY: Part one of our interview with CIA Director Bill Burns. We asked about other pressing matters, including China, Russia and Afghanistan. The CIA will stay, as the U.S. military pulls out, trying to gather intelligence in a country that looks increasingly unstable.

BURNS: The trend lines are certainly troubling. I don't think that that should lead us to foregone conclusions or a sense of imminence or inevitability. But, you know, they really are worrying.

KELLY: And you can hear that part of our conversation with the director tomorrow on Morning Edition.

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