Shortly after Joe Biden officially took office, the Senate voted on Wednesday to seat Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, marking both the first Senate confirmation of a nominee from the incoming administration and the first time a woman has held the top post in US intelligence.
She promised during her confirmation hearing the day before to “speak truth to power.”
The final vote tally was 84-10 for Ms Haines, 51, who previously served as deputy CIA director, deputy national security adviser, and deputy chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Mr Biden was chairman in 2007.
At her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Ms Haines pledged to put the nation’s intelligence apparatus above politics.
"When it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics, ever," she said.
Ms Haines also said she’d declassify an intelligence report about how the Saudi government assassinated Washington Post journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
This would likely mean publicly confirming media reports that the intelligence community determined Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was probably behind the killing, potentially upsetting the complicated alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi prince and former White House adviser Jared Kushner had a friendly relationship and maintained frequent contact with each other, reportedly even after the killing.
Biden's Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines says, if confirmed, she will provide Congress with an unclassified report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. pic.twitter.com/ocPUsJUeti
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 19, 2021
Her confirmation was briefly stalled as Republican senators like Tom Cotton worried she might reopen investigations into the CIA’s controversial interrogation and torture programmes from the early 2000s, but Mr Cotton said the DNI nominee later clarified she wouldn’t.
During the Trump years, domestic and foreign intelligence agencies became even more publicly embroiled in national politics than normal, as the Russia investigation dogged the president and FBI directors, secret intelligence courts, and special counsels all became household names.
Ms Haines takes office at a time when many of the trends of the previous two decades of intelligence issues seem to be reversing. Whereas as the US security community spent much of the 2000s focusing on the threat of violence from Islamic extremists like Al Qaeda, in 2020, the Department of Homeland Security found that white supremacists are the deadliest domestic terror threat, a notion reinforced when a white, pro-Trump mob including various white supremacists stormed the Capitol in early January.
Ms Haines said the attack on the Capitol was “truly disturbing,” but noted that domestic law enforcement agencies like the FBI and DHS take the lead on internal threats.
Looking outward, she pledged to focus on the “global competitor” that is China, which has reportedly been engaging in ever-more-brazen intelligence thefts at US institutions like universities, and vowed that, “I do not believe Iran should ever be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.”
She also said she’d dig further into the SolarWinds hack, a sophisticated malware campaign believed to originate in Russia that took down an email system used by top federal officials and agencies last spring.