Capitol Assault Dominates Hearing for Biden’s Spy Chief

Avril Haines vowed to keep politics out of intelligence.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Nominee for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines
Nominee for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines is sworn in for her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Jan. 19. Melina Mara/Pool/Getty Images

As a fortified Washington braces for unrest ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, confirmation hearings got underway on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for key members of his national security team. 

In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, lawmakers quizzed Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee for the director of national intelligence, on everything from China and the Iran nuclear deal to the SolarWinds hack of the federal government. Haines also made a point to describe waterboarding as torture.

Haines, who previously served as deputy director of the CIA, vowed to “speak truth to power” and end the politicization of intelligence seen during the Trump administration. “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, whose opening remarks also highlighted the importance of whistleblowers and inspectors general in holding agencies accountable.

While the director of national intelligence is primarily focused on foreign intelligence, the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6 loomed large over the hearing. Haines vowed to investigate any international links to homegrown extremist groups and to share lessons learned from the intelligence community’s role in combating radical groups abroad. Haines also committed to work with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on producing a public assessment about the threat posed by the QAnon conspiracy theory. 

Senators from both parties, including committee acting Chairman Marco Rubio and ranking member Mark Warner, expressed their concerns about the threat posed by an increasingly confrontational China, a threat that the intelligence community has struggled to focus on after decades of battling terrorism, especially in the Middle East.

“If confirmed I will absolutely make it a priority from my perspective to make sure we are allocating the right resources in addressing this issue,” she said, noting that, when it comes to questions of intelligence, China is an “adversary”—but that there is room for cooperation on issues like climate change. 

Senators also questioned Haines on her time working for WestExec Advisors, a consultancy firm founded in 2017 by Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, and Michèle Flournoy, who for a time was thought to be a leading contender for the position of defense secretary. Haines worked as a principal for the firm, which has drawn scrutiny over its refusal to disclose its client list. Haines confirmed that during her time with WestExec she did not consult on behalf of any foreign entities or foreign governments, but she had at another time served on the board of advisors of a private French company. 

Haines also promised to release an unclassified report into the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The Trump administration has defied legislation passed in 2019 that required the director of national intelligence to produce a formal determination on the killing.

Haines was introduced to the committee by former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who clashed with President Donald Trump over intelligence assessments about Russia and North Korea before stepping down in 2019. Coats, a former Republican senator, described Haines as “someone who has all the capabilities, qualities, and experience and leadership to be the next director of national intelligence,” before detailing her unconventional route into government. That included a year in Japan studying judo, and later theoretical physics at the University of Chicago. She met her husband while taking flying lessons in New Jersey. Later, she opened a bookstore, became a lawyer, and eventually served as a legal advisor at the State Department and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during Biden’s tenure as chairman.

Her selection is a contrast to Trump’s other picks for the role, which was created after the 9/11 attacks to oversee the country’s 18 intelligence agencies. Trump tapped political loyalists Richard Grenell and John Ratcliffe to serve as the primary intelligence advisor to the president. If confirmed, Haines will be the first woman to hold the job. And one of her first tasks will be to boost the morale of an intelligence community that has been repeatedly undermined and attacked by Trump and his allies.

But the truncated transition has left her in the dark on some issues. Haines said she had not received a classified briefing on the SolarWinds hack, which compromised many U.S. government agencies, that authorities have blamed on Russia. 

“I have a lot more to learn about what we know about this,” Haines told Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the intelligence panel who is set to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. 

Jack Detsch and Cailey Griffin contributed to this report. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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