Sun, October 17, 2021

in-focus

Biden's nominee for national intelligence chief faces questions on China, domestic extremism


WASHINGTON - Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence, took questions from senators Tuesday in a confirmation hearing that was notably free of the partisan rancor that has characterized so many oversight sessions during the Trump administration.

Discussion about China dominated much of the hearing, one of the rare issues that has attracted a bipartisan consensus for action on Capitol Hill in recent years. Senators pressed Haines on how she planed to counteract that country's aggressive espionage operations targeting U.S. companies.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee's incoming chairman and a former telecommunications executive, noted how his own views toward Beijing have hardened over the years, and he asked Haines to say whether China, under Communist Party rule, was an adversary of the United States.

She gave a measured answer.

"China is adversarial and an adversary on some issues," Haines said, "and on other issues, we try to cooperate with them." She noted that climate change is one area where the United States has sought Beijing's cooperation.

But, she said, "that does not mitigate the fact that in espionage and other ways, they are an adversary," and the intelligence community has to work to counter its "aggressive and unfair actions in these spaces."

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., criticized the intelligence community for, in his eyes, being "way too slow to pivot to the primary focus we need to have on China," including not having enough Mandarin-speaking analysts, and he solicited from Haines a commitment to address the issue. She said she recognized that "China is focused on a very long-term horizon, where the United States frequently is not."

Haines took firmer positions on other policies. Revisiting one of the intelligence community's darkest chapters, she unequivocally described waterboarding as "torture" and said that even if such interrogation techniques elicited useful and accurate information, she would never authorize their use.

"I believe that waterboarding is, in fact, torture - constitutes torture under the law," said Haines, a lawyer who was deputy CIA director during the Obama administration. "And I believe all of those techniques that involve cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment are unlawful."

Several senators also asked Haines what role the intelligence agencies should play in preventing political violence and the rise in domestic extremism that was laid bare in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump and has led to an unprecedented level of security to protect Wednesday's inauguration ceremony.

Haines emphasized that by law, the intelligence agencies address foreign threats and that the FBI and the Homeland Security Department would take the lead on domestic ones. But she noted that to the extent that U.S. groups have connections with foreign extremists, the intelligence agencies would support the work of law enforcement and security agencies.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, raised the issue of the recent Russian hacks of U.S. government agencies and private-sector computer networks, calling it "one of the most significant events that [has] transpired in recent months." He expressed dismay that the breaches went undetected for many months and that it was a private cybersecurity firm - not U.S. intelligence agencies - that discovered them.

Haines agreed. "It was pretty alarming that we found out about it through a private company rather than finding out about it ourselves," she said.

She told Reed that "this is a major concern," but she deferred on offering an opinion on how significant the operation was, saying she had not "had a full classified briefing" on the matter.

U.S. officials have said that the hack probably was perpetrated by Russian intelligence operatives, and that they have debated whether to characterize it as an act of espionage or warfare. Haines offered no solid proposals on how to counter foreign intrusions. But she said she favored a strategy of deterring adversaries by imposing sanctions and using criminal indictments.

Haines said it was possible to promote norms of acceptable behavior among nations in cyberspace without a treaty, something the United States has long resisted because it also attacks foreign computer networks to steal information and disable infrastructure.

Warner said it was Haines's job to help the intelligence agencies recover from a period of intense politicization. For years, Trump has derided the CIA and other agencies as dens of conspirators trying to undermine his presidency by fabricating a "hoax" that Russia tried to help him win the White House. His administration declassified intelligence about Russia's interference in the 2016 election that some officials said could compromise U.S. intelligence sources.

"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," Warner said.

Haines committed to "safeguard the integrity" of the intelligence community and to ensure that its work was free from political influence.

"When it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics - ever," she said.

If confirmed, Haines would make history as the first woman to serve as the director of national intelligence.

Gina Haspel, the first woman to run the CIA, the most influential of all the spy agencies, is retiring after 36 years serving as an intelligence officer, the agency announced Tuesday on Twitter.

Biden has nominated William Burns, a career diplomat, to succeed her.

Published : January 19, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima