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Avril Haines Takes Over As Intelligence Chief At 'A Challenging Time'

Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, released a declassified report Friday that says Saudi Arabia's crown prince was responsible for a 2018 killing of a prominent journalist. Haines spoke to NPR in her first interview since taking office last month.
Avril Haines, the new director of national intelligence, released a declassified report Friday that says Saudi Arabia's crown prince was responsible for a 2018 killing of a prominent journalist. Haines spoke to NPR in her first interview since taking office last month.

As the top U.S. intelligence official for just over a month, Avril Haines has an overflowing inbox.

A massive computer hack blamed on Russia is still under investigation. President Biden has raised the possibility of rejoining a nuclear agreement with Iran. And right before Haines sat down Friday with a team from NPR, for her first interview in office, aides handed out a report she'd just declassified: it said Saudi Arabia's crown prince was responsible for the brutal 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Haines has taken over after a turbulent time. Former President Donald Trump was frequently at odds with his handpicked national security team when its assessments did not fit his preferred narrative. During his one-term presidency, he had five directors of national intelligence.

"I think it has been a challenging time, particularly for the office of the director of national intelligence," Haines told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered. "There was a lot of turnover during the last administration and I think, more generally, that intelligence analysis wasn't necessarily being appreciated in the same way that it normally had been in the past."

"It looked to me from the outside as if there were political pressures being put on the intelligence community," she added.

Asked if that was something that could be easily fixed, she said, "Clearly not. I think this is one of those things where it's so much about the culture of the institution that gets damaged in those moments. And it's one of the hardest things to course correct."

Haines did not criticize members of the Trump administration by name, and described her immediate predecessor, John Ratcliffe, as "very good to me, very civil" during the transition in January.

Haines wore a navy blue mask throughout the interview at the Office for the Director of National Intelligence, part of a compound that's hidden away ever-so-slightly from the highways and shopping malls of suburban Washington.

Ties with Biden

She's had a longstanding working relationship with Biden. Haines became a lawyer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, when Biden was a Delaware senator and committee chairman. She followed Biden to the White House, working on the National Security Council when he was vice president. She also served in the No. 2 position at the CIA from 2013-15.

Now she's going to the White House on weekday mornings to oversee the president's daily intelligence briefing. She says she'll be joined by William Burns, the nominee to head the CIA, when he's confirmed by the Senate, which appears likely within days.

"You have now a president who very much wants to hear what you have to say, regardless of whether or not it's consistent with his particular policy views or any of those things," said Haines.

The Biden administration is still formulating its approach on several big questions, such as how to deal with a more assertive China, and how to respond to provocative moves blamed on Russia, like the Solar Winds hack that breached U.S. government and private company computers.

In her first high-profile move, Haines on Friday released a declassified report that said the intelligence community assessed that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi."

In 2014 file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Bahrain. Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.
Hasan Jamali / AP
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In 2014 file photo, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi speaks during a press conference in Bahrain. Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018.

The intelligence community reached that conclusion shortly after the 2018 killing of Khashoggi, 59, a columnist for The Washington Post who at the time was based in northern Virginia, not far from Haines' office. But the Trump administration refused to release a report despite legislation requiring it to do so.

Saudi Arabia rejected the finding as "negative, false and unacceptable." But Biden has made clear he's taking a more critical line toward the long-time ally.

The State Department announced a "Khashoggi ban" that placed visa restrictions on 76 Saudis "believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas."

However, the punitive U.S. measures did not directly target the crown prince, who is age 35 and the heir apparent to his father, King Salman, who is 85 and in poor health.

Integrating intelligence

In her new job, Haines oversees all 18 U.S. intelligence agencies. The challenge has been, and remains, synthesizing mounds of intelligence when agencies have such a wide range of missions.

For the past two decades, many national security agencies have focused heavily on foreign terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol dramatically elevated the threat of domestic extremism.

Asked which one now poses the bigger danger, Haines replied: "I try to resist comparing them, but I think there is no question that the domestic terrorism threat continues to be an increasing challenge for us."

The ODNI compound includes the National Counterterrorism Center. CIA headquarters is just a couple miles down the road. All are focused on foreign threats.

Haines stressed that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security would take the lead on domestic threats. But she added: "We work with [the FBI and DHS] and we pull from them in order to provide the broader picture. The reality is almost every threat that we're facing today is transnational. It comprises domestic issues and international issues, and terrorism is no different."

In her previous government jobs, Haines operated behind the scenes. Now that she's in the top intelligence post, she expects to have some public presence. That will include open testimony in before Congress, a tradition among intelligence officials that withered during the last administration.

"I do want people to know more about the intelligence community, and get used to it, and understand what we do," she said. But there are limits, she added. "I think it's a balance. I don't think it makes sense for the intelligence community to be the voice of the U.S. government."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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