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Biden Pick For Intel Chief Avril Haines Goes Before Senate Committee

President-elect Joe Biden's Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., in November.
President-elect Joe Biden's Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., in November.

Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence, begins her confirmation hearing Tuesday morning before a Senate Intelligence Committee seeking a different direction from President Trump's management of the country's vast intelligence network.

Unlike its House counterpart, the Senate committee is known for largely bipartisan, cooperative oversight of U.S. spy agencies. Trump's departing DNI, John Ratcliffe, is a fierce ally of the president who was twice nominated for the job before receiving Senate confirmation. As a Republican congressman from Texas, he had served on the contentious House Intelligence Committee but otherwise had scant relevant experience. Trump himself has been a vocal skeptic of the intelligence community.

Haines, 51, is a stark contrast. She is a veteran of the Obama administration but is widely described as professional and nonpartisan when it comes to analyzing intelligence.

Her journey to this moment in her career has been circuitous. Haines grew up an only child in Manhattan, caring for an ailing mother who died when Haines was 15. After high school she spent a year in Tokyo studying judo, then received an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Chicago. In her 20s she learned to fly, and with her husband ran an independent bookstore in Baltimore. Haines earned a law degree from Georgetown when she was 31.

When Biden introduced Haines as his nominee for DNI in November, he noted her unusual background.

"Brilliant, humble. Can talk literature and theoretical physics, fixing cars, flying planes, running a bookstore-cafe, all in a single conversation, because she's done all that," Biden said.

Her ascent in government was rapid. She began in the State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser, then moved to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she came to know Biden. Haines followed Biden to the White House when he became vice president, working on the National Security Council. In 2013, despite her never having worked at the agency, Obama named Haines deputy CIA director, the first woman to hold the number 2 job.

"I think all of us probably had a bit of a question mark because [Haines] didn't have a background in the agency," said Jeanne Tisinger, a senior CIA official, told NPR when Haines was appointed.

That changed quickly.

"I became a fan within weeks," Tisinger said.

Haines does have critics, particularly over her role in Obama's aggressive use of assassination-by-drone abroad. She also was at the CIA when it was found to have hacked the computers of Senate Intelligence Committee staffers. She recommended no disciplinary action be taken.

Haines kept a low public profile during her years in government. But when nominated by Biden, she pledged to be a powerful internal voice for unbiased intelligence.

"Mr. President-elect, you know I've never shied away from speaking truth to power," she said. "I accept this nomination knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise ... even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult, and I assure you, there will be those times."

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre contributed to this report.

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Mark Katkov