Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be director of national intelligence, pledged Tuesday to turn the corner after President Donald Trump’s warring with the intelligence community.
“To be effective, the DNI must never shy away from speaking truth to power — even, especially, when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult,” Haines said at her confirmation hearing. “To safeguard the integrity of our intelligence community, the DNI must insist that, when it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics ever.”
The intelligence community Haines would lead upon her Senate confirmation has been frequently under assault from a President who has accused a so-called “deep state” of undermining his presidency, particularly when it came to Russia and his impeachment.
Trump has fired officials in the intelligence community, and he placed a loyalist in the top intelligence post, former GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, who clashed with career officials declassifying documents related to the FBI’s Russia investigation and the extent that Russia and China sought to interfere in the 2020 election.
Haines told senators Tuesday that Biden “has made it absolutely clear that he expects the intelligence community to present him with an apolitical, truth-to-power analysis.”
“He will want to know what information we have that actually conflicts with his policy positions,” Haines added.
A former deputy CIA director and deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, Haines would be the first woman to lead the intelligence community in a role that was created following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Haines was introduced by Dan Coats, Trump’s first director of national intelligence and a former GOP senator, who repeatedly clashed with Trump over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“Most important to me as former director of national intelligence,” Coats said of Haines’ qualifications, “is her commitment to bringing non-politicized truth to power and restoring trust and confidence in the intelligence community and the American public.”
Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who will become chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee once Democrats take control of the chamber, said that Haines’ job will be to ensure the intelligence community “recovers” from the Trump era.
“The dedicated men and women of the Intelligence Community have been through a lot over the last four years,” Warner said in his opening statement. “Our intelligence professionals have been unfairly maligned. Their expertise, knowledge and analysis has often been ignored or even sometimes ridiculed by a president who seems oftentimes uninterested in facts. Those who bravely spoke the truth were vilified, reassigned, fired or retaliated against.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the outgoing acting Republican chairman of the Intelligence panel, did not mention Trump’s fights with the intelligence community in his opening statement, but said that it was important to fill the key national security role as quickly as possible. Among his first questions was asking Haines to commit to testifying publicly at the committee’s worldwide threats hearing, which Ratcliffe balked at doing last year.
Republicans questioned Haines on her views about China and Iran, including the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal that Trump pulled back from. Haines said that while the incoming Biden administration has indicated that it would come back to the table with Iran if Tehran came back into compliance, she noted that “frankly, we’re a long ways from that.”
Haines called China “a challenge to our security, to our prosperity, to our values across a range of issues,” noting that the intelligence community’s approach to China “has to evolve.”
“I do support an aggressive stance, in a sense, to deal with the challenge that we’re facing,” Haines said, adding that the US needed a stance that’s “more assertive than where we had been in the Obama-Biden administration.”
In addition to pledging to restore trust both inside and outside the intelligence community, Haines noted the many challenges US intelligence agencies face, from China to the global Covid-19 pandemic to cybersecurity threats like the recent SolarWinds hack.
In the wake of the insurrectionists ransacking the Capitol earlier this month, Haines was asked several questions about how the intelligence community can help the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to address the threat of white supremacist and far-right conspiracy groups. Haines told Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, she would work with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to produce a public assessment of the threat posed by QAnon, the far-right conspiracy group.
“The intelligence community is not in the lead in managing these events, it’s the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, but the intelligence community I hope will have an important role in supporting their work and ultimately, in particular, looking at any connections there are between folks in the United States and externally in foreign connections or influence that might’ve been appropriately identified as a context of the intelligence community.”
Haines committed to Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, to release an unclassified report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the Trump administration refused to do despite Congress passing a law requiring its publication.
“Yes, senator, absolutely will follow the law,” Haines said.
And Haines also pledged to provide Congress with intelligence community whistleblower complaints, in a nod to the Trump administration’s withholding of the 2019 Ukraine complaint that ultimately led to Trump’s first impeachment.
Haines is likely to be among the first Biden Cabinet officials to be confirmed by the Senate, and there’s expected to be little, if any, opposition to her nomination. The Intelligence Committee had initially sought to schedule her confirmation hearing last Friday in order to expedite the process, but a senator objected to holding the hearing virtually, leading to Tuesday’s in-person session.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.