WASHINGTON – When President-elect Joe Biden introduced Avril Haines as his nominee to lead the U.S. intelligence community six weeks ago, he said she would be vigilant against foreign threats and ready to confront America’s adversaries.
But as Haines prepares to go before the before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday, the country is reeling from an attack from within: the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by rioters seeking to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
If confirmed, Haines, nominated to be Biden’s director of national intelligence, will confront not only the menace of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the threat of Russian disinformation, and the aftermath of a sweeping cyberattack on U.S. government agencies. She will also face an energized domestic network of white supremacists, conspiracy theorists and far-right militia members who experts fear are planning more violence against government officials.
‘Significant domestic terrorist threat’
“We have a significant domestic terrorist threat we have to deal with,” said Ali Soufan, a former FBI supervisory special agent and expert in international terrorism. “We’ve never dealt with something of that magnitude since the Civil War.”
While DNI’s main focus is on foreign threats and intelligence, the office does have some purview over domestic terrorism, mostly via its oversight of the FBI and a supporting role for the National Counterterrorism Center, which is charged with integrating domestic and foreign threats and sharing assessments across the government.
In addition, some of the far-right groups operating in the U.S. have ties to similar organizations in Europe and elsewhere, says Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and homeland security expert at the University of Southern California.
“Many of these groups are transnational,” Southers said.
White supremacists and other like-minded extremists conducted 67% of terrorist plots and attacks in the United States in 2020, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. It also noted anarchist, anti-fascist, and other like-minded attacks and plots comprised 20% of U.S. terrorist incidents in 2020, an increase from 8% in 2019.
CIA, FBI and beyond
If confirmed as the director of national intelligence, Haines would oversee 18 U.S. spy and law enforcement agencies – from the CIA and the FBI to nine units under the Pentagon’s purview, including the newly added Space Force. As DNI, she would also be Biden’s principal intelligence adviser as the country reckons with the attempted insurrection and faces a slew of foreign threats.
Haines will promise to speak “truth to power” and ensure the intelligence community’s work is apolitical, according to excerpts of her prepared remarks obtained by USA TODAY.
“To safeguard the integrity of our Intelligence Community, the DNI must insist that, when it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics – ever,” she plans to tell the committee. “To be trusted, the DNI must uphold our democratic values and ensure that the work of the Intelligence Community, mostly done in secret, is ethical, wise, lawful, and effective.”
Biden said he tapped Haines because she is a brilliant, no-nonsense professional who who “can talk literature and theoretical physics, fixing cars, flying planes, (and) running a bookstore cafe – all in a single conversation.”
During Friday’s Senate confirmation hearing, lawmakers will probably not be asking Haines about any of those topics – focusing instead on a hornet’s nest of national security issues. She may also face questions about how she will re-energize and reshape an intelligence corps battered and beleaguered by President Donald Trump’s attacks.
Trump repeatedly cast doubt on the intelligence community’s work, particularly when it came to conclusions about Russia’s attacks on American institutions.
“Our intelligence professionals have been unfairly maligned; their expertise, knowledge, and analysis has often been ignored and ridiculed by a president uninterested in facts contradicting his political interests,” Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, plans to say in his opening remarks Friday. “Those who bravely spoke the truth were vilified, reassigned, fired, or retaliated against. Ms. Haines, it will be your task to ensure that the (intelligence community) recovers from this dark chapter.”
Haines has served as deputy national security adviser and deputy CIA director in the Obama administration – two high-pressure roles that her supporters say have fully prepared her to take on the DNI post.
“She is one of the most likeable people you’ll ever meet, but she’s also tough as nails,” said John Brennan, who was director of the CIA when Haines was deputy at the agency.
Possible lines of questioning
While Haines was widely respected in the Obama administration, her work on it’s policy of using drones to kill terrorists came under scrutiny. The American Civil Liberties Union and other human rights groups criticized those targeted killings – which also resulted in dozens of civilian deaths – as illegal, immoral and opaque.
The drone program may be a flashpoint in Haines’ confirmation hearings, along with another controversy that hits close to home for lawmakers: allegations that the CIA secretly searched Senate computers while lawmakers were investigating the agency’s use of brutal interrogation techniques during the George W. Bush administration.
The CIA denied any wrongdoing at the time, and Haines tried to work with senators to resolve the matter in 2014, which “took a lot of tact,” Brennan said.
As the CIA’s No. 2, Brennan said Haines dealt with everything from covert intelligence collection to congressional relations. She tackles problems by consuming troves of information and data – often working late into the night to plow through every available resource, Brennan said.
“She is not ideological at all,” he said. “What she does is tries to acquire as much knowledge and understanding as possible about the different factors of an issue … I don’t know anybody who puts in longer hours.”
‘Diversity of experience’
In the Obama administration, he said, Haines was known for leaving chocolates on her co-workers’ desks and fretting about whether they were getting enough sleep, even as she routinely worked through lunch and dinner herself. At the same time, Brennan said, she could go “toe to toe” with anyone in high-stakes showdowns over policy.
“She’s a rock star,” said Southers. Her long working relationship with Biden will be vital because the country cannot afford any miscues or lag time, he said. “She can hit the ground running in terms of relationships and experience and expertise.”
Brennan and others said her unusual background will also be pivotal, as she seeks to coordinate a sprawling intelligence apparatus that keeps tabs on terrorist threats, financial crimes, military aggressions and a gamut of other menaces.
“She brings such a diversity of experience and talents,” said David Priess, an ex-CIA officer and presidential intelligence briefer.
“That’s a real asset leading the intelligence community, because that community itself is such a combination of diverse job descriptions,” he said. “You have everything from political scientists and economists and military analysts to engineers and chemists and disguise artists and pilots.”
Haines’ early resume did not offer hints of a career in the upper echelons of American espionage. She was born in New York in 1969 to a biochemist father, Thomas Haines, and an artist mother, Adrian Rappin, who suffered from emphysema and avian tuberculosis.
Haines took care of her ill mother starting at a young age and once even had to reinsert a tracheal tube into her mother’s neck after it popped out, according to a 2013 profile published by Newsweek. Her mother died just before her 16th birthday, the Newsweek report says, and Haines finished high school while living with a boyfriend after her family, faced with medical bills, was forced to give up their apartment.
From there, Haines zig-zagged her way through one adventure after another – earning her brown belt at a top Judo academy in Japan, a physics degree from the University of Chicago, and her pilot’s license from a flight instructor in New Jersey.
She later married the flight instructor, David Davighi, and they bought a twin-engine Cessna together – which they equipped with long-range fuel tanks so they could fly across the Atlantic. (Instead, the couple had to make an emergency landing near the Newfoundland coast.)
Haines has also worked as a bookstore owner, an auto mechanic and an international lawyer.
“Just the diversity of her experiences shows that that she will innately have a keen ability to understand and relate to the diverse workforce that she will lead,” said Priess, who is author of “President’s Book of Secrets.”
Her different jobs and experiences also “reflect an ability to adapt in circumstances and kind of hit the ground running,” he said. “And that will also serve her well in the position of DNI, where so much of that job is about relationships with the heads of agencies, with Congress and with others in the administration.”
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