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DNI nominee Haines: Spy agencies will speak ‘truth to power’ under Biden

New spy chief-designate can repair airplanes and cars, studied physics

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Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to become the director of national intelligence, told senators on Tuesday that she would restore the nonpartisan nature of the office and focus on transparency and analytic rigor.

Haines was appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee for her confirmation hearing. If confirmed, she would be the first woman to head the office, which was created after the 9/11 attacks when investigations found that the CIA and the FBI had failed to share intelligence with each other.

In the four years since President Donald Trump took office, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence changed hands three times, with four directors overseeing the efforts of 18 different intelligence agencies spread across civilian and military departments. Its most recent annual budget was slightly over $85 billion.

Trump fired or replaced one director after another because they refused to echo his views on global threats.

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On the global stage, “the greatest challenge facing you, as the DNI, will be a rising China that is committed to surpassing and eclipsing the U.S. militarily, economically and technologically,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing.

Warner also noted that terrorism and terrorist groups remain a major threat, “whether Islamist or white nationalist, are increasingly mutating, fracturing, regrouping and radicalizing on the internet and through social media.”

Former GOP Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, who was Trump’s first director of national intelligence, introduced Haines and noted her versatile background: a student of theoretical physics who not only learned to fly but to rebuild airplanes, worked at an automobile repair shop rebuilding cars, and studied and earned a brown belt in judo in Japan.

Haines said in her opening remarks that in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “there’s simply no place for politics.” The DNI’s office “must never shy away from speaking truth to power, even, especially when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult,” she said.

Throughout his term, Trump has cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies, labeling them as “deep state” and accepting claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin while discounting U.S. assessments.

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

Countering China

Asked by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., acting chairman of the panel, whether she would testify in public about the spy agencies’ annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, Haines said she would. Trump’s White House had stopped the spy agencies from presenting the annual assessment to Congress.

U.S. intelligence agencies should work together “to support long-term bipartisan efforts to outcompete China, gaining and sharing insight into China’s intentions, and capabilities, while also supporting more immediate efforts to counter Beijing’s unfair illegal, aggressive and coercive actions, as well as its human rights violations whenever we can,” Haines said.

Rubio said Chinese espionage activities include trying to convince American mayors and state governments to echo Beijing’s worldview, and asked how the DNI could counter that effort.

Haines said that to adequately counter China’s aggressive tactics, U.S. spy agencies need to “do more training in respect to counterintelligence” and build relationships with local and state officials to help educate them about foreign influence activities.

Warner said the decades-long bipartisan consensus that China would “move to some level of international norms” if the rest of world engaged in trade and normal relations with Beijing “was wrong.”

Instead of the consensus expectation, Beijing has moved “aggressively militarily; we see them move aggressively economically,” Warner said. “I’ve been particularly concerned about their efforts to dominate new technologies,” if necessary by stealing intellectual property, he said.

Haines said China is an “adversary on some issues and in other issues we try to cooperate with them, whether in the context of climate change or other things.” She noted that Biden has identified China as a “global competitor.”

To address domestic terrorism threats, most notably from white extremist groups that were involved in the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, spy agencies would have an “important role in supporting” the work of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI in examining whether white nationalist groups get any help from outside the United States, Haines said.

Haines previously has served as deputy director of the CIA and as President Barack Obama’s principal deputy national security adviser. She was in that position when the Senate Intelligence Committee investigated the spy agency’s role in the torture and waterboarding of terrorism suspects after 9/11.

Progressive groups have criticized her role in suppressing some of the details of the Senate panel’s findings.

Asked by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., whether torture was effective as an interrogation tool, Haines disavowed the practice.

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