The CIA launched its own podcast Thursday, saying it wanted to step out of the shadows to “demystify” its espionage work and help Americans understand the role of the intelligence agency.
Dubbed the “Langley Files,” the first 18-minute episode featured an interview with the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, who said it was vital to explain to Americans how the agency works, even while protecting its secrets.
At a time when “trust in institutions is so scarce,” Burns said it’s “important to try to explain ourselves as best we can and demystify a little bit of what we do.”
The CIA’s first-ever podcast comes as the agency seeks to recruit a more diverse workforce, and as it marks its 75th birthday under a director with a penchant for greater openness.
Burns said the CIA’s work was nothing like spy movies, a “world of heroic individuals who single-handedly drive fast cars every day and defuse bombs and solve world crises.”
The former career diplomat said he never expected to become the director of America’s top spy agency and said his wife and daughters find it amusing that his daily routine is far removed from the glamorous life of spies portrayed on film.
“They keep reminding me that I don’t really fit into that picture — since I’m most comfortable driving our 2013 Subaru Outback at the posted speed limits and that, for me at least, is the pinnacle of technological audacity is when I can finally make the Roku remote work at home,” Burns said.
Yet Burns said there was “no lack of courage, skill and ingenuity among our officers.”
He cited two examples as recent successes for the agency, forecasting Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine and tracking down al-Qaeda co-founder Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was killed in a US attack last month.
The CIA and other US intelligence agencies “were able to paint a pretty clear picture of Putin’s plans to launch a major new invasion of Ukraine last fall, months before he actually launched that invasion on Feb. 24,” Burns said.
“That allowed us to help Ukrainians defend themselves. It has helped us build allied unity. It helped bring to light the fact that what Putin was about was a naked, unprovoked aggression,” he said.
Burns added that the effort was “strengthened” by a presidential decision to release certain intelligence.
Under Burns’ tenure, the CIA and other intelligence agencies broke with past practices and released intelligence on Russia’s war effort in Ukraine as part of an information war with the Kremlin.
Burns also said the agency had prioritized China and set up a new center targeting the country. The CIA tried to devote more resources to that effort and recruited more Mandarin speakers, he said.
Burns made no major disclosures in the podcast, and the two agency employees who host the show politely asked their boss questions. But Burns did mention a photo he has in his office that reminded him of the massive effort made last year to evacuate Americans and their Afghan partners working with the CIA in Afghanistan.
The photo, taken when Burns flew to Kabul to speak with the Taliban leadership as US troops withdrew from Afghanistan, shows a bare wall with thousands of black check marks, he said.
“It is a record of the lives of stranded American citizens and Afghan partners, partners who fought and bled with us for more than 20 years in Afghanistan. A count of lives that our officers, who work very closely with partners in the US military and the State Department, have helped save,” Burns said.
“In those tumultuous, dangerous days in late August, I saw our officers take incredible risks to go beyond the wire at the Kabul airport to rescue stranded American citizens and Afghan partners,” Burns said.
The photo reminds us that amid the pain of the US withdrawal, we “did our duty in the most trying circumstances and fulfilled our deep obligation to our fellow citizens and our Afghan partners.”