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As top U.S. spy chief, Haines will face task of restoring trust

Avril Haines would be the first woman director of national intelligence overseeing 17 U.S. spy agencies

Avril Haines, former deputy national security adviser and former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was named by President-elect Joe Biden to be director of national intelligence.
Avril Haines, former deputy national security adviser and former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was named by President-elect Joe Biden to be director of national intelligence. (Getty Images)

Avril Haines, chosen by President-elect Joe Biden to become the next director of national intelligence, will face the tough job of restoring Americans’ trust in U.S. intelligence agencies, which in the past four years have faced a barrage of false accusations from illegal domestic spying to cooking up intelligence and have seen top officials forced out of office for speaking the truth.

In the four years since President Donald Trump took office, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has changed hands three times, with four directors overseeing the efforts of 17 different intelligence agencies spread across civilian and military departments, with a combined annual budget for fiscal 2020 in excess of $85 billion.

If confirmed by the Senate, Haines would become the first woman to hold the office, which was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to avoid the intelligence failures that led to the first massive foreign terrorist assault on U.S. soil.

Haines previously served as deputy director of the CIA and as President Barack Obama’s principal deputy national security adviser.

Haines’s pick was welcomed by several congressional Democrats, who also noted the challenges she faces.

“President Trump has regularly ignored and degraded the intelligence professionals who put their lives on the line to keep us safe, and I do not envy the task Haines will have in rebuilding trust in our political leadership,” Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on intelligence and emerging threats and capabilities, said in a statement.

Langevin said that he had been impressed by Haines’s candor, insight and policy knowledge while she served as the CIA’s deputy director.

Will face tough questioning

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that while Haines will face rigorous questioning from senators on both sides of the aisle, “the sooner we can get a confirmed DNI in place to start fixing the damage the last four years have done to our intelligence agencies, the better.”

All through his term of office Trump has cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies, labeling them as part of the “deep state” and accepting claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin, while discounting U.S. assessments about Putin.

In January 2019 after then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, briefed lawmakers on the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, Trump called U.S. spy chiefs “passive and naive” and said perhaps intelligence should “go back to school.”

Coats told Congress that contrary to Trumps claims, ISIS wasn’t on the verge of defeat back then, that North Korea wasn’t likely to give up its nuclear arsenal, and that Iran wasn’t trying to acquire a nuclear weapon. Coats also reaffirmed the U.S. intelligence agencies’ finding that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election to favor Trump’s candidacy and was likely to do so again in 2020, after Trump had repeatedly asserted that Russian interference in the 2016 race was a hoax perpetrated by Democrats.

Later in 2019, Trump forced Coats, his first director of national intelligence, out of the office after a little more than two years when Coats continued to present intelligence findings that contradicted Trump’s own assessments.

Joseph Maguire took over as acting director in August 2019 after the nomination of John Ratcliffe, a Texas GOP congressman, fell through after reports emerged that he had embellished his resume.

Maguire stepped down from that role in six months after Trump declined to formally nominate him for the job because the official had briefed lawmakers about threats to election security.

Trump then named Richard Grenell, a staunch loyalist and then-ambassador to Germany, as acting director. Under Grenell’s watch, top intelligence officials resigned and the acting director declassified select portions of the intelligence community’s documents relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The selective release of documents fueled claims by Trump and his supporters leading them to create a new conspiracy theory they labeled “Obamagate,” which included several lies and false accusations alleging that Obama had somehow led a coup against the Trump presidency.

Lawmakers and several former intelligence officials accused Grenell of being inexperienced in intelligence matters and of politicizing the office to boost Trump’s chances of reelection. Grenell left the acting position in May when Ratcliffe was once again nominated for the top intelligence job. Although Ratcliffe won Senate confirmation with no Democratic support, during his confirmation hearing Warner said he was concerned about Ratcliffe’s partisanship.

“I have to say that while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt during this hearing, I don’t see what has changed since last summer when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination over concerns about your inexperience, partisanship and past statements that seem to embellish your record,” Warner said during the hearing. “This includes some particularly damaging remarks about whistleblowers, which has long been a bipartisan cause on this committee.”

During Trump’s impeachment hearings in the House, Ratcliffe questioned the veracity of the claims made by an intelligence community whistleblower who said that the president had asked Ukrainian leaders for information on former Vice President Joe Biden in exchange for releasing congressionally approved foreign aid to the country.

Under Ratcliffe’s leadership, the ODNI continued to selectively declassify intelligence documents relating to the 2016 election that experts said appeared to support Russian disinformation efforts.

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