WASHINGTON — 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 terrorist attacks. Her testimony kicked off a series of confirmation hearings for Biden’s top national security nominees.
In the opening hour of her hearing, Haines was repeatedly asked to comment on the problem of domestic extremism, following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She said that under her watch, the intelligence community, which is comprised of 18 intelligence agencies, including the CIA, would have a support role in assessing the threat coming from domestic extremists.
The primary responsibility for U.S.-based threats belongs to the FBI and the Department Homeland Security, she said, adding that 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 understands that such connections to international groups do exist, although she mentioned none by name.
The committee’s lead Republican, Marco Rubio of Florida, and its ranking Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, both indicated they expect Haines to win confirmation. Her hearing kicked off a series of Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday, including those 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 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.
In opening remarks, Mayorkas addressed the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He said in prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing that the pro-Trump riot is “horrifying” and the authorities still have much to learn about what happened that day and what led to the insurrection.
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. He called the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill “senseless and searing” and pledged to work with Congress.
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.
Doubts about the wisdom of having a recently retired officer running the Pentagon are rooted in an American tradition of protecting against excessive military influence by ensuring that civilians are in control. When he announced Austin as his pick in December, Biden insisted he is “uniquely suited” for the job.
Lindsay P. Cohn, an expert on civil-military relations and an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, said at a Senate hearing on the subject last week that an Austin waiver raises worrying risks.
“Choosing a recently retired general officer and arguing that he is uniquely qualified for the current challenges furthers the narrative that military officers are better at things and more reliable or trustworthy than civil servants or other civilians,” she said. “This is hugely problematic at a time when one of the biggest challenges facing the country is the need to restore trust and faith in the political system. Implying that only a military officer can do this job at this time is counterproductive to that goal.”
Some Democrats have already said they will oppose a waiver. They argue that granting it for two administrations in a row makes the exception more like a rule. Even so, a favorable vote seems likely.
Story by Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldo and Matthew Lee. Associated Press writers Ben Fox, Eric Tucker and Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.