Senate confirms Biden’s pick for spy chief hours after he’s sworn into office

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Avril Haines was the deputy director of the CIA during the Obama administration. Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • The Senate confirmed Biden’s nominee for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.
  • Haines was the deputy CIA director and deputy national security advisor in the Obama administration.
  • She pledged during a confirmation hearing that she would keep politics out of intelligence.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Joe Biden’s pick for US spy chief, Avril Haines, by a vote of 84 to 10.

Biden nominated Haines to serve as the director of national intelligence, a vast role overseeing 18 intelligence agencies that experienced an extraordinary level of politicization during the Trump era. She previously served as the deputy CIA director and deputy national security advisor under President Barack Obama.

Haines is the first woman to helm the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and she was the first Biden Cabinet pick to be confirmed. The development came just hours after Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the US.

At a confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, Haines pledged to keep politics out of intelligence.

“To be effective, the DNI must never shy away from speaking truth to power, especially when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult,” she said in her opening statement.

She said that as DNI, she would prioritise crafting the US’s response to China’s aggression and preparing for the next pandemic.

“We should provide the necessary intelligence 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,” she said in her prepared remarks.

“At the same time, the DNI should see to it that the Intelligence Community’s unique capabilities are brought to bear on the global COVID-19 crisis around the world, while also addressing the long-term challenge of future biological crises — enabling US global health leadership and positioning us to detect future outbreaks before they become pandemics,” she added.

Haines also committed to assisting with putting out a public assessment of the domestic threat that the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory poses. She added that she would release an unclassified public report about the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Haines went on to outline three “institutional” priorities,according to CBS News: rebuilding trust in the US intelligence apparatus’ rank and file, using the intelligence community’s resources to fight both traditional and nontraditional threats, and strengthening partnerships in the private and public sectors.

Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton initially said he would hold up Haines’ confirmation until he got a written answer from her regarding a question at the confirmation hearing about the CIA’s “enhanced-interrogation” program that was carried out under the Bush administration.

On Wednesday evening, Cotton lifted the hold and cleared the way for her confirmation after receiving a response.

Haines will take the reins of the US intelligence apparatus as it recovers from a period of unprecedented politicization under former President Donald Trump. He installed a longtime loyalist, former Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe, as the director of national intelligence in the final year of his presidency.

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Former President Donald Trump. Erin Schaff – Pool/Getty Images

While serving in that role, Ratcliffe made a number of controversial decisions regarding the declassification of sensitive intelligence related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and the FBI’s investigation into the matter. Ratcliffe was widely criticised as weaponizing and selectively releasing intelligence to bolster Trump’s false narrative that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” launched to undermine his presidency.

Ratcliffe also significantly curtailed his office’s cooperation with Congress and stonewalled lawmakers on election-security briefings. Trump ousted Ratcliffe’s predecessor, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, after Maguire authorised an aide to alert Congress about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 election in Trump’s favour.

Maguire also ignited the former president’s fury when he testified to Congress about a whistleblower complaint revealing the details of a July 25, 2019, phone call in which Trump tried to convince Ukraine’s president to launch bogus political investigations targeting Biden ahead of the November election.

That phone call and the events surrounding it later became the basis of Trump’s first impeachment on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The former president also forced out his first director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, following a period of fraught tension because Coats publicly contradicted Trump’s conspiracy theories about Russia and his views on North Korea and Iran.

Coats praised Haines at her confirmation hearing this week, telling lawmakers, “After several conversations with Avril, there is no doubt in my mind that President-elect Biden has chosen someone who has all the capabilities and qualities, experience, and leadership to be the next director of national intelligence.”

But Haines has had some controversies of her own, chief among them being the role she played in overseeing the Obama administration’s drone program that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.

As Insider’s John Haltiwanger reported, Haines also drew criticism for her role in the CIA’s use of torture; for redacting the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bombshell report on the use of torture; and for green-lighting a panel that decided not to punish CIA employees who were accused of spying on the committee’s investigators.