Haines pledges to ‘speak truth to power’ if confirmed as Biden’s intel chief

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Martin Matishak
·6 min read
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Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to be the nation’s top intelligence official, promised Tuesday to “speak truth to power” and resist any effort to politicize the work of the country’s intelligence agencies.

“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,” said Haines, a former CIA deputy director and former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, in her confirmation hearing to become the first female director of national intelligence.

The hearing was just one in a slew of proceedings held Tuesday for Biden's incoming Cabinet the day before his inauguration as the 46th president, including his picks to lead the Homeland Security, State and Defense departments.

Much of the session dwelt on bipartisan concerns that Haines would be sufficiently independent and serve as an apolitical provider of intelligence following the turbulent Trump era, as well as issues like domestic terrorism and the rise of China.

The outgoing administration saw the last two top intelligence chiefs get their jobs not because of their experience but due to their loyalty to President Donald Trump.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked Haines if she would commit to publishing analytic products in the president’s daily brief — a summary of high-level national security intelligence — even if they didn’t align with the new administration’s policies.

“I do. Absolutely, senator,” Haines replied, adding she has witnessed the practice in the past. She later said Biden has “just about” ordered her to tell him the truth on intelligence matters.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who attended the hearing virtually from his car, asked Haines if she planned to make any changes “structurally” to rid the nation’s 18 intelligence agencies of politicization.

Haines acknowledged she didn’t have “specific” recommendations at the stage but said one of her first acts would be to send a clear message to the rank-and-file that they are “expected to produce apolitical, unvarnished” intelligence products. She suggested it might be useful to conduct a “climate survey” to understand the experiences and pressures analysts have faced recently.

Haines said she has a “number of questions” about a recent report by the intelligence community's ombudsman that found that current DNI John Ratcliffe and other political appointees had clashed with career intelligence analysts over the scope of Russia and China’s interference, or attempted interference, in the 2020 election.

Lawmakers repeatedly asked Haines to weigh in on domestic terrorism in light of the Jan. 6 deadly assault on the Capitol by a throng of the president's supporters. She called that day’s events "truly disturbing" but noted the primary responsibility for U.S.-based threats belong to the FBI and DHS, though the intelligence community would “support their work and look at connections” between people who took part in the insurrection and foreign extremists.

Haines later committed to working with the FBI and DHS to produce a public threat assessment on the dangers of QAnon, the online conspiracy theory popular with many Trump backers.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle asked Haines how the U.S. should address the growing global power of China, with some admitting that their hopes that Beijing would become a more open government are a thing of the past.

“I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I was part of that consensus and I think I was wrong,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the panel’s top Democrat. He will receive the Intelligence committee gavel later this week after Democrats retake the Senate majority.

Haines noted she hasn’t had an in-depth classified hearing on China, but said the two countries are “adversarial on some issues" while cooperating on others, like climate change. She framed China, as Biden himself has, as a "global competitor.”

She committed to Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) — who complained that the intelligence community has been “way too slow to pivot” in addressing Beijing’s behavior — to deliver a strategic plan to boost the spy community’s hiring pipeline for people such as Mandarin speakers.

Pressed by Republicans about the Iran nuclear deal, Haines initially said the U.S. is a “long ways” from rejoining the agreement and needs to look at Tehran’s ballistic missile program and other destabilizing activities.

“Do you believe Iran should ever be allowed to get nuclear weapons?” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) asked her.

“No, senator, I do not believe Iran should ever be allowed to get a nuclear weapon,” she replied.

Cornyn also asked Haines to commit to releasing the last three years of her tax returns. He asked whether any of Haines' income came from foreign sources, noting she was a "principal" when she worked for WestExec, a D.C.-based consulting firm that has provided a home to much of Biden's national security team.

“It’s just a title,” she said, adding she worked maybe one day a month for the firm as a consultant.

Haines also committed to complying with a law requiring an unclassified report on who is responsible for the murder of the Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA has reportedly concluded was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

She also said she would work to better understand the full impact of the SolarWinds breach, a mammoth hacking campaign that has affected a number of federal agencies and which the intelligence community has tentatively linked to Russian operatives.

"This is the greatest cyber intrusion, perhaps, in the history of the world," said Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), who will become chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.

“This is a major concern,” Haines said, adding it was “pretty alarming” the compromise was discovered thanks to a private cybersecurity company rather than being detected by the U.S. government.

Haines also vowed to appear before the committee for its annual Worldwide Threats hearing. The session had been a source of tension throughout 2020 between Congress and the security agencies after the previous year's installment drew public rebukes from Trump for contradicting his positions on Iran, North Korea, Russia and other national security issues.

POLITICO first reported last year that ODNI was pushing for the hearing, which features both public and classified sessions, to be moved entirely behind closed doors over fears their bosses might provoke Trump’s ire.

The massive spending and coronavirus relief bill signed into law last month made the session a requirement for intelligence leaders.