Biden DNI pick says no room for politics in intel agencies

President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for national intelligence director Avril Haines arrives for a confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the intelligence community, Avril Haines, promised Tuesday to “speak truth to power” and keep politics out of intelligence agencies to ensure their work is trusted. Her remarks implied a departure from the Trump administration’s record of pressuring intelligence officials to shape their analysis to the president’s liking.

“When it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics — ever,” she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Haines, a former CIA deputy director and former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, would be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence, or DNI — a role created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

She was given a mostly positive reception by committee Republicans and Democrats, suggesting likely confirmation by the full Senate. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the committee chairman, seemed to allude to Haines’ confirmation as a sure thing, rattling off her eclectic career experiences and hobbies, and then joking, “I’m not sure what you’re going to do with the rest of your life and this new position.”

Her testimony kicked off a series of confirmation hearings for Biden’s picks to lead the State Department, the Pentagon, and the departments of Homeland Security and Treasury. While most of those nominees are unlikely to be confirmed by the time Biden takes the oath of office at noon Wednesday, some could be in place within days.

In the opening hour of her hearing, questions focused on China as a potential adversary, Iran and prospects for containing its nuclear program, and an issue that has taken on added urgency in the weeks since Haines was nominated, namely, domestic extremist violence. Her answers were received with little sign of opposition from panel members.

Haines said domestic extremism was mainly a matter for the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, but that the intelligence community, which is comprised of 18 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, has a support role in assessing the threat coming from domestic extremists. She said she expects that intelligence agencies would be involved in those discussions, particularly if there are connections between Americans and foreign-based extremist groups. She said she understand that such connections to international groups do exist, although she mentioned none by name.

In introducing Haines to the committee, Dan Coats, who served as director of national intelligence in the Trump administration, called her an “exceptional choice” for the position.

Also testifying Tuesday at his confirmation hearing was Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He would be the first Latino and first immigrant to lead the agency.

Mayorkas faced questions from Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who chairs the Homeland Security committee, about an Office of Inspector General report that criticized his management of an investor visa program that he oversaw as head of the immigration services committee under President Barack Obama. The IG said that he created a perception of bias by overturning decisions on behalf of three investment projects backed by prominent Democrats.

Mayorkas strongly defended his actions, saying he intervened in many decisions at the agency on behalf of Republican and Democrats in Congress when he felt that the action was legitimate and necessary to solve problems such as those with the investor program.

“I learned of problems and fixed them,” Mayorkas said.

Several senators said it was important to quickly confirm a new head of Homeland Security given the threats facing the nation from the pandemic, the massive SolarWinds cyber-hack that authorities suspect was carried out by Russia, and the rising threat of domestic extremists.

“He understands the challenges that this country faces, both from our foreign adversaries and now more than ever from our domestic ones,” said Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, in calling for confirmation.

Putting his national security team in place quickly is a high priority for Biden, not only because of his hopes for reversing or modifying Trump administration policy shifts but also because of diplomatic, military and intelligence problems around the world that may create challenges early in his tenure.

The most controversial of the group may be Lloyd Austin, the recently retired Army general whom Biden selected to lead the Pentagon. Austin will need not only a favorable confirmation vote in the Senate but also a waiver by both the House and the Senate because he has been out of uniform only four years.

Also facing confirmation hearings were Biden confidant Antony Blinken to lead the State Department, and Janet Yellen as treasury secretary, another first for a woman.

In prepared remarks, Blinken said he is ready to confront challenges posed by China, Iran, North Korea and Russia and is committed to rebuilding the State Department after four years of atrophy under the Trump administration.

Ahead of the Blinken hearing, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said he expects the committee to vote on the nomination on Monday.

Blinken will tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that he sees a world of rising nationalism and receding democracy. In remarks prepared for his confirmation hearing, Blinken will say that mounting threats from authoritarian states are reshaping all aspects of human lives, particularly in cyberspace. He’ll say that American global leadership still matters and without it rivals will either step in to fill the vacuum or there will be chaos — and neither is a palatable choice.

Blinken also promises to bring Congress in as a full foreign policy partner, a subtle jab at the Trump administration and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who routinely ignored or bypassed lawmakers in policy-making.

Austin was testifying later Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, but the panel will not be in position to vote until he gets the waiver. Republicans are expected to broadly support the Austin nomination, as are Democrats.

Biden’s emerging Cabinet marks a return to a more traditional approach to governing, relying on veteran policymakers with deep expertise and strong relationships in Washington and global capitals. Austin is something of an exception in that only twice in history has a recently retired general served as defense secretary — most recently Mattis. Austin, who would be the first black secretary of defense, retired from the military as a four-star general in 2016. The law requires a minimum seven-year waiting period.