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'More aggressive' on China and an eye on domestic terrorism: Biden's intelligence pick testifies to Senate panel

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·6 min read
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WASHINGTON — On the eve of Joe Biden’s inauguration, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee questioned his pick to lead the intelligence community, Avril Haines, on national security issues ranging from China to domestic extremism.

On his first day in office, Biden will be facing a wide array of urgent challenges including the ongoing pandemic, which has killed more than 400,000 Americans; a massive digital security breach resulting in likely Russian actors accessing sensitive internal government data; and the recent insurrection directed at the U.S. Capitol led by President Trump’s supporters. Having his Cabinet in place, particularly those members in charge of providing key intelligence, will be vital to responding to those threats.

Avril Haines speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be President-elect Joe Biden's national intelligence director in Washington, DC, U.S. January 19, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Pool via Reuters)
Avril Haines at her confirmation hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be Joe Biden's national intelligence director. (Joe Raedle/Pool via Reuters)

Questions to Haines, who previously served in a range of national security roles, including deputy director of the CIA, were largely cordial, and focused on evaluating her qualifications to serve as the director of national intelligence, a role created following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in an attempt to break down “stovepipes” between agencies that were not sharing information.

Both acting Chairman Marco Rubio and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, whose roles will swap when the Democrats assume control of the Senate, brought up China in their opening remarks and questioning. Rubio, R-Fla., noted that the U.S. “woke up to the reality” of China stealing “our trade secrets and intellectual property,” deploying students as tools of foreign influence and making major “military gains,” all while putting “Muslims in work and detention camps.” Warner, D-Va., described “a rising China” as “perhaps the greatest challenge” facing the intelligence community as Beijing is “committed to surpassing and eclipsing the U.S. militarily, economically and technologically.”

The committee, known for its bipartisanship, showed a united interest in determining what Haines’s approach to China and gathering intelligence on China’s activities might be. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., specifically demanded that she commit to “ramping up our pipeline of Mandarin speakers” and find other ways to pivot the intelligence community’s focus to Asia.

Haines said she agrees that China is and should be a priority to the intelligence community, stating that Biden sees Beijing as a “global competitor” overall, rather than entirely adversarial. But when it comes to national security and espionage, “they are an adversary,” she added.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing for director of national intelligence nominee Avril Haines in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at Haines's confirmation hearing on Tuesday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The intelligence community will need to be focused on “countering their illegal, unfair, aggressive actions,” Haines said. She committed to working with the committee to produce metrics on how the intelligence community would be positioning itself to collect intelligence on China.

Haines also stated that “our approach to China has to evolve,” saying a “more aggressive stance” than the one that existed under former President Barack Obama is warranted.

Committee members, primarily Democrats, also called attention to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, specifically calling out domestic extremists and far-right actors who participated in the assault and asking Haines what role she sees the director of national intelligence playing in responding to those threats.

Haines said she would support the lead agencies in charge of responding to domestic threats, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, “in particular looking at any connections there are between folks in the U.S. and abroad.” She will likely be tasked with seeking further information, not only on foreign actors attempting to stoke further division by amplifying narratives about the attacks on social media, but also on the possibility of foreign funding of right-wing activists.

Haines also committed to working with the FBI to produce a letter about the threat posed by the right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon, as requested by several members of the committee. Additionally, as she pointed out, the National Counterterrorism Center, housed within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, can pull from both domestic and foreign intelligence in order to analyze “issues that cross the seam” and will likely be tasked with continuing that work under Biden.

Haines also received pointed questions from senators concerning her work at the CIA while the Senate was conducting its investigation into the agency’s harsh post-9/11 counterterrorism programs. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked her to address the moment during the investigation when the CIA got access to Senate staffers’ emails. “I believe that was wrong that the intelligence community had access to [committee] staff emails,” she said.

Ranking member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing for Janet Yellen, of California, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for Treasury Secretary in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2021. (Anna Moneymaker/Pool via Reuters)
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., at the Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday for Janet Yellen as treasury secretary. (Anna Moneymaker/Pool via Reuters)

She also testified that she would not advocate for any harsh interrogation techniques — which she said amount to torture — whether they were effective or not, though she would not make a definitive statement about whether she believed the CIA’s tactics produced valuable intelligence. “I believe that waterboarding is in fact torture,” she said. “I do believe that all of those techniques … are unlawful from both a domestic and international perspective and should not be engaged in regardless of whether or not they’re effective.”

Haines was quizzed about her role in the lobbying and consulting field, particularly her experience with the private firm WestExec Advisors, where she was a contractor. She repeatedly denied having done work for foreign governments, including China, except one advisory role with a French company.

On cybersecurity, Haines noted she has yet to receive a full, classified briefing about the extent of the damage from the recent breach stemming from a malicious update in IT monitoring software products produced by the private-sector company SolarWinds. However, she concluded it “does seem to be quite extraordinary” and recognized that cybersecurity would need to be a major priority for the government as a whole.

Haines said her priority from an intelligence community perspective would be to “promote the ability to detect when adversaries are engaging in such activity” in order to “provide information about attribution” for breaches and to “hold adversaries to account through that.”

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with National Security staff in the Oval Office in this White House photograph taken on March 8, 2012 and obtained on June 13, 2013. (Pete Souza/The White House/Handout via Reuters)
President Barack Obama meets with his national security staff in the Oval Office on March 8, 2012. Haines is second from right. (Pete Souza/The White House/Handout via Reuters)

Haines, who was deputy White House national security adviser to Obama, was also asked about her position on whether the U.S. should rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Obama-era agreement that was designed to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In response to questions from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Haines said she hopes to gather as much intelligence on Iran’s activities as possible, including on “ballistic missile issues” and “other destabilizing activities” in order to inform both Biden and Congress as the administration considers reentering or strengthening the deal.

She stated that she does “not believe Iran should ever be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.” However, she also concluded that the U.S. is likely “a long ways” from rejoining the deal, which President Trump abandoned in 2018.

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