William Burns at George W. Bush Presidential Center

CIA Director Burns on Ukraine: ‘We’re Running Out of Time to Help Them’

April 25, 2024
George W. Bush Presidential Center

The full video of this event from the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s 2024 Forum on Leadership can be found here. Introduction and transcription by RM Staff.

CIA Director William Burns predicts that with supplemental U.S. aid, which is now beginning to flow to Ukraine, the Ukrainians “are entirely capable of holding their own through 2024 and puncturing [Vladimir] Putin’s arrogant view that time is on his side.” Several days before the U.S. Congress approved the $95.3 billion foreign aid package, of which $61 billion is marked for Ukraine, Burns sat down with David Kramer, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, at the George W. Bush Presidential Center Forum on Leadership event to discuss Russia and the Middle East (“those nice, simple parts of the world” responsible for his gray hairs, Burns joked), as well as U.S. competition with China and the role of emerging technologies in the world of intelligence. During the April 18 conversation, Burns warned that without additional U.S. aid, there was “a very real risk that the Ukrainians could lose on the battlefield by the end of 2024.” “The Ukrainians are not running out of courage and tenacity,” Burns said. “They’re running out of ammunition, and we’re running out of time to help them.” The stakes in Ukraine are high, according to Burns, who doesn't see Putin's ambitions stopping at Ukraine. Additionally, while the strength of U.S. and European support for Ukraine at the war’s onset gave China’s Xi Jinping pause regarding his ambitions for Taiwan, the U.S. walking away from Ukraine now would be “the surest way to undo that impact,” Burns said. 

See below for a transcript of the full interview. The full video of the event can be found at the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s website.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush: First of all, I want to thank today’s panelists. I thought the discussions were relevant, fascinating and intelligent, and we can’t thank you enough for participating in our conference. Secondly, I hope a lesson from the conversation was that if the United States withdraws, the world will get worse, and if we expect to be secure at home, we’ve got to worry about the lives of others abroad.

It’s my honor to introduce the last conversation, next to the last conversation, or soon-to-be last conversation. I’ve known Bill Burns for quite a while because he was the ambassador to Russia during my presidency. By the way, the guy’s fluent in Russian. He was the number three at the State Department under Condi [Condoleezza Rice], which was a big job. He is now the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. He works at the George Bush Intelligence Center, which, in my case, is not oxymoronic. We’re really lucky to have him here today. He’s knowledgeable. He is a thoughtful guy, so please welcome CIA Director Bill Burns to the stage.

David Kramer: Mr. President, thank you very much. I’m David Kramer, the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, and it’s a real honor for me to be here with Bill Burns, the Director of the CIA. Bill, I want to underscore one thing. Monday morning [April 15], we were all wondering what our plan B was going to be, given the developments in the Middle East. The fact that you’re here is a real tribute to your friendship and dedication to living up to your word. We’re very grateful that you are here today, so thank you.

William Burns: Delighted to be here with all of you, and thanks, Mr. President, for the kind words that mean a lot to me coming from someone for whom I have such respect. It’s also great to see David, a superb friend and colleague in government over the years, and I especially want to thank all of you for allowing me to escape from Washington, D.C., for a few hours, so thanks for having me.

DK: You bet. The last thing I’ll say, and we’ll move on, is one of the smartest and most decent people I met in my time at the State Department was Bill Burns, so thank you again for being here. Bill, let’s jump right into it. The situation in Ukraine with Russia’s invasion, unprovoked invasion, there’s now, of course, the vote coming up, we hope, in the House of Representatives on [April 20, 2024]. Give us your sense of how important it is to help Ukraine. What does it mean if we don’t? Could [President Vladimir] Putin actually prevail on this?

WB: Yeah, no, I can’t think of a more important question right now, certainly not before the U.S. Congress. There’s a huge amount at stake here, not only about Ukraine and Ukrainians, as important as that is, or about European security, but it’s also about Xi Jinping’s China and his ambitions and our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. This is really a question of, you know, whether or not our adversaries understand our reliability and determination and whether our allies and partners understand that as well. So, the consequences of what the House of Representatives is considering are enormous right now. You know, first I should say I’m very proud of the role that intelligence has played now over... 

[Takes a microphone] Sorry, can you hear me any better now? 

Sorry, you missed all those golden words then. No, I was just saying the short answer is there’s an enormous amount at stake in terms of how the U.S. House of Representatives and the Congress, more broadly, you know, decides to act with regard to supplemental assistance for Ukraine. 

I was just starting to say I’m very proud of the work of U.S. intelligence and of the CIA, in particular during the course of the war in Ukraine and in the run-up to it. I think we did what good intelligence services are supposed to do, which is to provide accurate early warning of the invasion that was coming. The president sent me to talk to Putin in early November of 2021, so several months before Putin launched his invasion, and I must say I found him totally unapologetic about what he was planning to do, I came back and told the president that I was convinced that they were going to go.

But I do think the credibility of that intelligence did help the president not only to support the Ukrainians and help them defend themselves but also to put together a very strong coalition of countries in support of President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and Ukraine. The other thing that we, the president, decided to do, which is a little bit unusual, was to declassify some of our secrets to deny Putin the ability to create false narratives. And I think the wider lesson there, which I had watched him [Putin] do too many times over the last 20 years, the wider lesson there, I think, as all of us look at the phenomenon of authoritarian regimes: Sometimes you can use the truth, secrets that we collect, if you’re careful about it and you don’t expose your sources and methods, in a way that really puts autocratic leaders like Putin on the back foot, you know, in the uncomfortable and unaccustomed position of not being able to cope with the truth sometimes, too. 

We’re at a tough moment. Ukrainians are at a tough moment on the battlefield right now. The Ukrainians are not running out of courage and tenacity; they’re running out of ammunition, and we’re running out of time to help them. I was in Ukraine about a month ago. I’ve been there 10 times during the course of the war, and this was just three days after the Ukrainians were driven out of the town of Avdiivka in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

I also talked to one of the senior officers who was there, and he described it in pretty simple terms. He said, we fought as long and as hard as we could, but the Russians just kept coming, and we ran out of ammunition, and we lost. And, you know, I think the reality, as you look at what happened in the two days before the fall of Avdiivka, one entire Ukrainian brigade, so more than 2,000 personnel, had a grand total of 15 artillery rounds for the entire brigade, 15 artillery rounds per day. Another entire brigade had a grand total of 42 mortar rounds. So they were overwhelmed, but it wasn’t for lack of bravery or determination on their part. And my worry is that we’re going to see more Avdiivkas in the future without supplemental assistance.

With supplemental assistance from the U.S. Congress, I think Ukrainians can hold their own on the battlefield in 2024 and continue to do damage with deeper strikes in Crimea, which the Russians are occupying right now, and against the Black Sea Fleet, where the Ukrainians have sunk 16 warships in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet just over the last six months. So, you know, with the boost that would come from military assistance, both practically and psychologically, I think the Ukrainians are entirely capable of holding their own through 2024 and puncturing Putin’s arrogant view that time is on his side. 

Without supplemental assistance, the picture is a lot more dire, I think. There is a very real risk that the Ukrainians could lose on the battlefield by the end of 2024 or at least put Putin in a position where he could essentially dictate the terms of a political settlement. And as I said before, there’s an enormous amount at stake here. 

I think in the first year or two of the war in Ukraine, of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, Xi Jinping and China were sobered a little bit by what he saw. Like Putin, he expected that the Russian military was just going to walk right over the Ukrainians. He did not expect that the United States and our European allies were going to stand up in support of the Ukrainians. He did not expect that we would be able to impose economic costs on Russia and absorb some economic costs ourselves. And so I think as he looked at Taiwan contingencies and a lot of his other ambitions that had an impact, the surest way to undo that impact is for us to be seen as walking away from the Ukrainians right now. So the very short answer is there’s a great deal at stake.


I think Ukrainians can hold their own on the battlefield in 2024 and continue to do damage with deeper strikes in Crimea, which the Russians are occupying right now, and against the Black Sea Fleet.

DK: If we don’t help Ukraine, if Putin marches forward into Ukraine, does he stop there? Or does he ambitions beyond that?

WB: I don’t think his ambitions would stop there. And his ability to use what he calls “hybrid warfare,” a combination of sort of conventional military threats and efforts to undermine countries, either in NATO or on his borders. Moldova, for example, faces a really important election today [April 18]. We see lots of evidence of the Russian security services trying to undermine that free and fair process right now. So, there are lots of ways in which I think he could continue to be aggressive and realize those ambitions.

DK: Possibly even the Baltic states?

WB: Yeah, no, I mean, I think if I were in leadership in the Baltic states right now, history tells me I should be very concerned about that, too, whether that takes the form of an overt conventional attack or, you know, other ways of trying to undermine, you know, those countries and, you know, NATO’s integrity as well as a different question. But either way, I think, you know, you’d see his ambitions continue.

DK: Let’s shift to the Middle East, a region that you have been spending a lot of time in, particularly lately, but you were Ambassador to Jordan and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. How do you see the situation there, particularly in light of Iran’s attack on Israel over the weekend?

WB: Yeah, when I used to be a diplomat for three and a half decades, I spent most of my overseas career split between Russia and the Middle East. So that’s where all my gray hair came from. Both of those nice, simple parts of the world.

You know, as I said, I’ve spent most of the last 40 years working in and on the Middle East. And I have rarely seen a moment more combustible than it is today. You’ve got a terrible crisis in Gaza provoked by Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel on the 7th of October [2023], but now also producing a desperate humanitarian situation for innocent civilians in Gaza right now.

And then more recently, as we saw [on April 13, 2024], we had a massive Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel. The Iranians fired off something like 330 drones and missiles combined. It turned out to be a spectacular failure for them, thanks to integrated air defense, good intelligence and the Israelis themselves, but it was supported by the United States, some regional partners and some international partners as well. Of those 330 missiles, only four or five actually impacted Israel, and none of them did any significant damage. So, you know, it’s a reminder of the quality of the Israeli military. It’s a reminder that the Israelis have friends, starting with the United States and continuing with others.

So I know the Israeli government, as we sit here this afternoon, is considering a response to what happened. And, you know, that’s their choice to make that response. I think the broad hope of the president and policymakers in the administration is that we’ll all find a way to de-escalate this situation, especially at a moment when, you know, I think the Israelis have demonstrated so clearly their superiority. And, you know, the Iranian effort was a pretty significant failure as well. So, you know, we’ll see what response might come. But I think the broader hope is that we’ll be able at least to de-escalate the situation pretty quickly.

I’ve gotten very wrapped up over the last six months in efforts to negotiate a ceasefire and the next release of hostages that Hamas has held since Oct. 7. It may seem a little strange for a CIA director to be as engaged in that. Still, my counterparts in this effort are the director of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, the head of Egypt’s intelligence service and the Prime Minister of Qatar, someone I’ve worked with for many years and a very capable negotiator. So, you know, at the end of [2023], we achieved a briefer ceasefire and the release of 100 of those hostages, women and children at that time. We’re going to keep working hard at this. It’s proven very difficult. It’s a big rock to push up a very steep hill right now. I meet with families of hostages and it breaks your heart because you can see in very human terms what’s at stake here as well. So I cannot guarantee that we’re going to succeed in this effort. 

We put, along with the Qataris and Egyptians, a pretty far-reaching proposal on the table in Cairo a couple of weeks ago.It was a deep disappointment to get a negative reaction from Hamas through the Qataris and the Egyptians to that proposal. Right now, it’s that negative reaction that really is standing in the way of, you know, innocent civilians in Gaza getting the humanitarian relief that they so desperately need. 

Part of the challenge here is not just the number of trucks with humanitarian goods that get to the Gaza border. It’s being able to have at least a short-term or the beginnings of a longer-term ceasefire that enables you to distribute those goods to people who so desperately need them as well. And so we’ll keep working hard at this. As I said, I cannot honestly say that I’m certain that we’re going to succeed, but it’s not going to be for lack of trying. And I do know that the alternatives are worse. They’re worse for civilians in Gaza. They’re worse for hostages and their families. I think they’re worse for all of us.

DK: Let me shift to the Asia-Pacific. What are the greatest challenges we face from the Chinese communist leadership there? And what are the greatest challenges that Chinese communist leadership faces within its own borders?

WB: Really good questions, David. I mean, I think none of us should underestimate the ambition of Xi Jinping’s China right now or the nature of competition. 

You know, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was mainly about ideology and military competition.With the People’s Republic of China today, especially under Xi Jinping, it’s a much wider kind of competition, extending into cyberspace, outer space and space itself, technological competition, given the reality that it’s the revolution in technology today that’s changing the way all of us live, work, fight and compete. The Chinese leadership is quite determined to try to win that competition, too. So, you know, that’s the challenge before us.

A lot of that challenge extends to East Asia. I think Xi Jinping was determined to control Taiwan over the course of his political lifetime. It doesn’t mean that he’s planning to invade tomorrow, next month or next year, but it means we have to take that ambition very seriously.

You’re right, David. I mean, I think President Xi faces a lot of domestic challenges, such as an economic recovery and an economic growth rate, which is not moving nearly as fast as he had hoped after COVID-19. A lot of challenges, you know, inside his own country right now, too.

So, you know, China is not, even with all its ambition, even with all its expanding capabilities and a really serious military modernization program, it’s not 10 feet tall. And I think that’s why we should approach this competition with a certain amount of confidence. If we can get our own act together in this country, I mean, not just in terms of the economy, but in terms of our political system, overcome some of our own dysfunction sometimes, you know, there’s every reason to think we have a better hand to play than the People’s Republic of China does today.

And I think the other great asset that we have is that we were reminded of this, you know, over the war in Ukraine and in other instances, we have a network of allies and partners. By comparison, I think China and Russia are lonelier countries. Now they’re working, you know, more closely together now than any time in my memory. And that’s a significant challenge for us. But if we’re not complacent about our network of allies and partners, not only in the Indo-Pacific but in Europe and other parts of the world, you know, that’s another huge asset that should enable us to compete very effectively with the People’s Republic of China over the next couple of decades.

DK: You just mentioned, Bill, that these regimes are working closely together, perhaps more closely than we’ve seen in the past. And at the same time, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the tensions between China and Taiwan, the Middle East situation and the resurgence of authoritarianism, the world kind of seems on fire right now. How would you put today’s situation in the context of the three-plus decades that you were a diplomat?

WB: Yeah, I mean, you know, I mean, I was a young diplomat when President Bush Sr., you know, was in the White House, the Cold War had ended, the Soviet Union had collapsed. You know, this was a moment of unchallenged primacy for the United States. You know, today, now more than three decades later, it’s fair to say we’re no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block.

As I said before, I’d much rather have our hand to play than anybody else’s because I think ours is a stronger hand, not least, I think because of its democratic foundations. And as cocky and confident as a lot of authoritarian regimes can become, they understand very well some of the challenges and insecurities that they face at home, too. So this is a moment where, you know, our relative power in the world is not quite as dominant as it was at the end of the Cold War, but it’s still quite significant.

And again, if we invest in allies and partners, if we recognize the competition in emerging technologies, that’s really going to shape the future of our economy and our militaries. I think we’re quite capable of winning those competitions as well.

DK: I want to turn to the issue of transnational repression, which has come to the forefront more and more. Freedom House has done great work on this. Basically, it’s authoritarian regimes going after their critics and opponents beyond their country’s borders, arresting them or trying to kill them, intimidating their families back in their countries. How big a problem is this? And is it a reflection of the brazenness and boldness of these regimes? Or is it insecurity that they feel they have to go after these people

WB: Well, I think it’s both, honestly. I mean, I’ve always seen, for example, Putin … is someone who’s kind of a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity all wrapped up together. And so the phenomenon of transnational repression of governments, autocratic governments in particular, reaching out to kill or intimidate oppositionist human rights activists outside their own borders, I think, is growing.

And it’s increasingly serious. And it requires, you know, a lot of cooperation, not just amongst domestic law enforcement agencies and intelligence services but also among allies and partners. We’ve seen this phenomenon with the Iranian regime, you know, which has gone after and plotted to murder some very brave activists who have spoken out against that regime and its repressiveness.

We’ve certainly seen it from the Russians, from phenomena that have been traced directly back to the Russian security services, assassinations overseas, to the other phenomenon you see of people falling out of high stories of buildings as well, which I don’t think is entirely coincidental either. And then the Chinese, the People’s Republic of China, have oftentimes been responsible for efforts to repress and intimidate their citizens, you know, in other countries, whether it’s in this country, in Europe or other parts of Asia. In many countries, for example, trying to establish what they see as their own police stations in those countries to monitor the activities of their citizens and of the Chinese diaspora as well, aimed at intimidating them as well.

So it’s a growing challenge. And it’s one as an intelligence service that we take very seriously.


Putin … is someone who’s kind of a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity all wrapped up together.

DK: And it’s, I think, a reminder that how regimes treat their own people within their own borders can have spillover effects beyond their borders. And when Putin’s regime abuses the human rights of Russian citizens, [we] shouldn’t be shocked that Putin invades Ukraine or the Iranian regime cracks down on the leading state sponsor of terrorism … the Chinese problems are threatening Taiwan. How important is it that we pay attention to what’s happening in these countries?

WB: Well, I think it’s incredibly important. Because I think that’s where the human rights behavior, the intimidation, the brutality, whether it’s Putin’s Russia or other autocratic regimes, is something we pay attention to not only because it’s the right thing to do because of, you know, the innocent citizens who are trying to speak their minds and who are being intimidated or repressed, but also because that behavior tends to spill over. [It] tells you a lot about a regime when people resort to those kinds of methods.

DK: Let’s shift to the issue of technology. Authoritarian regimes are using it. Of course, it has opened up a world to many people for whom the world was shut out before. How much of a challenge is technology for the work that the CIA does? How much of a threat is it posed by authoritarian regimes? And what kind of benefits does it give you in the kind of work you do?

WB: Sure, the short answer is that we, as an intelligence service, have to be better than our rivals and adversaries at mastering those emerging technologies. It’s not a multiple-choice test. I mean, this is, I think, one of the biggest challenges we face as an intelligence service.

Of course, we’re about human beings. It’s about recruiting, training and developing the very best in our society to help keep Americans safe. This is a free advertisement and a shameless recruiting pitch, but we had the biggest number of applicants to CIA [in 2023] than any time since right after 9-11, Mr. President. So, you know, I think while most of the work that I’m incredibly proud of that my colleagues do is quiet, almost by definition, in hard places, doing hard jobs around the world, people appreciate that enough, I think, to be attracted to it, too. And so, you know, I think we have to recruit the right human beings, but then we have to equip them with the right technologies, too. You know, for our operations officers who are trying to manage human assets, people that we work with in other societies in an age of smart cities and the ability of rival governments to mine data to be able to track those officers and track the people that we’re working with. We have to be a lot more agile in terms of our use of technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning and our capacity to work with big data and mine it. The same is true for our analysts, who are trying to produce the best judgments that we possibly can for the president.

The use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which we’re very sharply focused on, can enable the best human analysts to digest huge amounts of information out there, whether it’s open source, unclassified or clandestinely acquired intelligence. You know, that can enable those human analysts to do what they can only do, which answers the “So what?” question for the president, the second and third-order consequence questions about what policymakers should really be focused on. So we’re making a lot of progress in that area.

Of all the staff that I have at the CIA, about a third of our officers work full-time every day on cyber, digital, science and technology issues. Two of the five directorates that we have that help organize the agency are focused squarely on those issues. We also formed what’s called a mission center, which is one of the organizational building blocks of the CIA, aimed squarely at technology and building better private-sector partnerships because, for all of that in-house talent and all the talent across the U.S. government, we can’t compete effectively with the Chinese in particular unless we’re building better, stronger, healthier partnerships with the private sector, given the pace of innovation in areas like quantum computing or artificial intelligence. And so that’s been another big focus of ours the last few years.

DK: You referred before to the release of classified information to let the world know about Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine. I’m curious: How much of a culture shock was there within the agency when an order was given to release classified information? It has to be handled very carefully, obviously.

WB: Small culture shocks are not a bad thing. I mean, I think it’s important for all of us to, you know, try to challenge conventional wisdom a little bit sometimes, but you have to be careful about it, too. I mean, the surest way to dry up good intelligence is to put at risk sources and methods, the ways in which you’ve collected that intelligence.

And, you know, Washington is a place where the theory usually is that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, so you’ve got to be careful about that. But I think the president, and it’s been his call and his decision, has hit the right balance on Ukraine because, you know, we could see that Putin, before the war, was trying to create what are called false flag operations. So, in instances in which he would point to some loss of life in the Donbas, for example, in eastern Ukraine, blame the Ukrainians for that and use that as a justification for his aggression.

We, working with the British intelligence service, were able to expose that and make it public, and that made it a lot harder for him to build and sustain those false narratives. So I think there are going to be other places where we’ve used that technique. And I should say that this administration is not the first time the United States has done that; it builds on, you know, efforts over previous administrations.

But I think it was, and it has been, particularly effective in the Ukraine case. And there’ll be other opportunities, I think, to do that. It is one way, as I said before, to counter what autocrats and authoritarian regimes have often seen as one of their great assets: the ability to dominate the information space, whether it’s filled with lies or truths or some combination of the two. And I think we can make it harder for them to do that.


We’re no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block. ... I’d much rather have our hand to play than anybody else’s because I think ours is a stronger hand, not least, I think because of its democratic foundations. ... So this is a moment where, you know, our relative power in the world is not quite as dominant as it was at the end of the Cold War, but it’s still quite significant.

DK: Without getting into the details, can you explain to the audience what the duty to warn means? I think some people were surprised to read that we provided some information, a heads-up to the Russians about an imminent terrorist attack. Just describe what that entails.

WB: Yeah, the duty to warn obligation for U.S. intelligence services actually goes back to the 1970s. It’s built around the notion that we have a duty when civilian deaths are potentially or are possible, at least because we can see a terrorist attack being planned to share that information to help prevent those civilian deaths. Now, there are exceptions to the duty to warn in instances where it would put at risk some particularly sensitive intelligence we’ve collected would put at risk some of our officers.

But by and large, we’ve tried to abide by that obligation. So you’re right. We, the U.S. government, did provide quite accurate intelligence to the Russian services about what we could see was an impending terrorist attack by ISIS against, you know, a pretty big entertainment center in Moscow. And, you know, you'd have to ask the Russian services why they didn't pay more attention to that, why they didn't act on it. We did the same thing, strange as it may sound, in Iran because we could see planning another ISIS attack against a big gathering of Iranian civilians as well. And so we provided that, you know, information as well.

DK: And just for the record, to be clear, the Russian claim that the Ukrainians and even we were behind that terrorist attack is utterly absurd and unfounded

WB: No, it was a nice try. No, and first, I mean the Russians who claimed that the ISIS operatives responsible for that atrocity were trying to retreat to Ukraine. Now, you know, this is a little bit of suspension of disbelief because this is one of the most active battlefields in the world. And it's hard to imagine anybody trying to retreat through that battlefield. And then President [Alexander] Lukashenko of neighboring Belarus helpfully said in public, “No, no, no, they were going to Belarus as well.” So, it is kind of undermining the Kremlin narrative on that one. But no, it is ISIS was responsible for this. We knew in advance what was coming. We provided quite precise information…

DK: When one of your closest allies is somebody like Lukashenko, you may want to look in the mirror.

WB: He said the truth out loud.

DK: Exactly. In our final minutes here, Bill, let me ask you, what has been the biggest surprise for you since you became CIA director? And how different is this from the world of diplomacy, even though you have been active in diplomatic efforts?

WB: Yeah, and I spent a lot of time working with CIA officers over the years when I was a career diplomat, especially when serving overseas. I'll never forget, you know, one of my best friends from my first post in the foreign service, the diplomatic service, which was in Jordan. One of my best friends was a young CIA officer named Matt Gannon, who was later killed in Qaddafi's terrorist attack against Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

So, you know, I've never forgotten the connections with friends and officers in the agency who made the ultimate sacrifice over the years. But, you know, I thought I knew a lot about the agency. And then I arrived there.

I've been a part of it. I've been proud to lead it for the last three and a half years. But, you know, I still have a lot to learn about the tribes and the sub-tribes within that institution. But I'm incredibly proud to be doing what I'm doing. It's a job I genuinely love. I mean, lots of people in Washington say that. I really mean it. Because I'm so proud of what our officers are doing right now, too. I also learned that my old institution, the State Department, which I also love, tends to be a little bit more passive-aggressive.

So even when I was like the number two in the State Department, usually if I said something once, people would figure if I were really serious about it, I'd say it again. CIA is a much more agile place. So, I had a bad habit the first few months I was there about thinking out loud. And then I would discover, at the end of that working day, that a 14-page action plan had been drawn up, and for all I knew, aircraft were taking off. So, my staff reminds me not to think out loud too much now. 

But the other thing, the other thing I'd say, one of my predecessors, actually two of them, Leon Panetta and George Tenet, gave me some really good advice. They said that, okay, you're in the State Department, and you can read in the newspapers what the Secretary of State is doing. CIA, it's really important to focus on internal communication. So, on all the travels I take, and I'm about to leave on my 66th overseas trip in the three years I've been director, it's another of the surprises is how much time I spend on the road. I genuinely enjoy seeing our officers in the field. But on the plane ride home, I do two things. I write a note to the president, just with my impressions, and I try to do it in a conversational way so it's honest and straightforward and not bureaucratic. And then I write a note to our workforce too. I try to be equally straight about what I am trying to achieve and about how proud I am of the work that I just saw in stations and bases around the world. 

And then the last thing I'd say is I like to wander around at headquarters following in the footsteps actually of George H.W. Bush, who I know did the same thing. And again, a little bit unlike the State Department, people are refreshingly honest with me. They'll stop me in the hole and tell me what they think I did right or what they think I just screwed up, whether I'm standing in line at the Subway in our food court or anything else. One of our exceptional assistants reminded me about a year ago that I was going down for coffee once a day. I was getting a reputation for being bougie because I was going to Starbucks instead of Dunkin Donuts. So now I balance it out. I like Dunkin Donuts coffee, too.

DK: Since Dunkin Donuts started in Massachusetts, you should definitely go to Dunkin Donuts. Last question. One, I'm sure you get asked a lot, probably on a lot of people's minds here in the audience. What keeps you up at night?

WB: Oh, you know, I mean, I could give you all sorts of answers that are quite real. Terrorist threats. We have a huge obligation to Americans to help keep them safe. So that is obviously a worry. I worry about the conflict in the Middle East or the war in Ukraine. But honestly, what keeps me up at night more than anything else is people.

As I said before, it's my officers and their families who are doing really hard jobs in really hard parts of the world. Who, you know, in a world in which you can't, you are never going to have zero risk. You can't make risk go away. That's just the truth, especially in the intelligence profession. You can mitigate it, anticipate it and try to manage it. And so, you know, that's what keeps me up at night.

It's one, actually, one other story that literally kept me up at night. Last year, about six months ago, I took part in the last overnight exercise of our operations officer course down at a farm in Virginia. And this had seemed like a really good idea at the time, you know when I agreed to do this.

Ran from like 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. So, at about 3 o'clock in the morning, in the pitch dark of the Virginia woods, I wondered whether this was such a great idea. But it was fascinating for me to see, you know, our newest office, our newest operations officers, the very beginning of their careers, not just mastering the tools of the trade, but also learning teamwork and learning how much, whatever their backgrounds were. And there were some of those new officers who had extensive experience in the U.S. military. There was another who was a mother of four who had no experience in the U.S. military. But the way they looked out for one another is really the essence of what good intelligence tradecraft is as I look to the future. Then, the really interesting thing was that it was around 4:30 in the morning, and this exercise culminated with a hostage rescue mission by a Delta team group that came up.

And the Delta team, the major who was commanding it, had only been told that there's this simulated situation where there are some CIA officers with someone impersonating a senior CIA officer who had been captured, and they're held hostage. So it was worth the price of admission to see the look on the face of that young major as he came up the stairs in this hostage rescue effort and saw a real live CIA director tied to a chair. So that kept me up at night, but it was it was a highlight of my time.

DK: We won't do that to you here. Bill, I'll just say that when you were ambassador in Russia, and I was the DAS for Russia in the State Department, Nick Burns and I, in particular, would visit many times. I was always so impressed with the esteem and respect that the staff had for you and the care that you showed to the people in the embassy. I have no doubt that that applies to your team at the CIA. We're incredibly fortunate to have you where you are. We're grateful for your service over many years in your career. We're also incredibly grateful you took the time to be with us today. Thank you so much. 

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the speakers. Photo is a screenshot from the event video.