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Director Of National Intelligence Avril Haines On The Challenges Ahead

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I am in the suburbs of Washington. I'm just turning. I'm just about to turn up this steep asphalt hill. This looks like your typical suburban office park, but just around the corner, we're about to hit a security check. That is because this is the headquarters of U.S. intelligence. And we are here to interview the woman in charge. That would be Avril Haines. Having worked over the years at the State Department, the White House, the No. 2 job at the CIA, she took over in January as the director of national intelligence.

AVRIL HAINES: It's so good to see you again.

KELLY: Nice to see you.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: Haines' job spans everything from briefing the president every day to overseeing the work of all 18 U.S. spy agencies to trying to figure out how much of that work, so much of which is classified, should be made public. She told me she will commit to public testimony before Congress. That is something intelligence leaders avoided towards the end of the Trump presidency. She sat for this interview, her first as DNI. But Haines says it's a balance.

HAINES: You know, I don't think it makes sense for the intelligence community to be the voice of the U.S. government in a variety of ways, right? And, you know, we are political appointments, but we are - you know, we see ourselves - certainly I see myself as not a political animal in this job. And so I really can't be a spokesperson in any way - right? - for the administration. That would not be appropriate. But I do want people to know more about the intelligence community and get used to it and understand what we do.

KELLY: Haines takes over after four years of tumult in the intelligence world. Trump regularly attacked his spy chiefs. And the turnover rate - Trump went through five acting or permanent DNIs during his four-year presidency.

If I asked you for a word to describe the state of morale in the intelligence community that you inherited, what would it be?

HAINES: I don't know about in a word. It has - I think it has been a challenging time, particularly for the office of the director of national intelligence. I mean, as you say, there was a lot of turnover during the last administration and a sort of a - I think a sense more generally that intelligence analysis wasn't necessarily being appreciated in the same way that it normally had been in the past. But, you know, I think it's - there's just been a lot of concern about the degree to which, you know, analysis has been politicized. And I think...

KELLY: In your view, was it? Was intelligence politicized?

HAINES: I think there was - it certainly looked to me from the outside - and, again, it's always hard to tell exactly what's happening, you know, on the inside. But it looked to me from the outside as if there were political pressures being put on the intelligence community and ultimately, sometimes, you know, political leaders putting it aside in a way that was quite dismissive of what the intelligence community provides. And so...

KELLY: I mean...

HAINES: Yeah.

KELLY: What are the consequences of that?

HAINES: Right.

KELLY: Does the bad blood just go away?

HAINES: Clearly not, right? I mean, I think this is one of those things where it is so much about the culture of the institutions that gets damaged in those moments. And it's one of the hardest things to kind of course-correct on in a way. I mean, I think there's, you know, saying to the intelligence community, I want analysis that is not politicized or policy-biased, right? I want you to know that I'm not going to be in any way retaliating against you if you don't tell me what I want to hear. And 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, right?

But it is - you know, it is not going to change everything in a day. And I think part of the challenge is that you have to really then follow through by showing people that you do, in fact, mean that. It's not just words, and this is what you're expecting to have happen. And it's going to take some time.

KELLY: Did your predecessor, John Ratcliffe, President Trump's last DNI - did he leave things you want to undo?

HAINES: You know, I don't think about it that way. I'll be totally honest, and I think it's really important for us not to approach it from that perspective. I mean, I - first of all, former Director Ratcliffe was very, very good to me, very civil. You know, we had a number of conversations during the course of the transition.

I think one of the challenges we have in the office of the director of national intelligence right now is that we are undermanned in a sense. We have, you know, less people than we have number of billets that we should be pushing in. We have some places where we need to make sure that we're drawing in the talent that we need from the rest of the intelligence community into joint duty assignments and things like that. It's just remarkable the degree to which we're trying to pull in each of those into the work that we're doing so that everybody doesn't just share what they're doing but they're actually working together to actually produce things and leveraging each other's work in a way that's helpful.

KELLY: Your job, director of national intelligence, this building we're sitting in - the whole structure was, of course, created after 9/11 in response to 9/11, in response to international terrorism.

HAINES: Yeah.

KELLY: Is it still the right setup to fight the threat of domestic terrorism?

HAINES: Yeah, it's a great question. First of all, there is an ongoing need of a director of national intelligence really to integrate intelligence across the community. And that's sort of first and foremost the value that we bring, in a sense. And...

KELLY: I guess my question's just a specific one. Do you need to totally rethink the National Counterterrorism Center, for example, if it's domestic terrorism, not foreign?

HAINES: Well, that - so what I was going to get to is just that NCTC is kind of an unusual animal. Like, the National Counterterrorism Center has its own statute even though it's part of ODNI, of my office, right? And what the statute does is it gives it pretty broad authorities in terms of bringing together domestic intelligence with international intelligence in order to provide that comprehensive view of counterterrorism.

I think that's absolutely necessary in the space. So do I think that we are well-postured to do that? I think we are in the sense that we are able to work with the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. Both of those are really in the lead on managing domestic terrorism. But we work with them, and we pull from them in order to provide the sort of broader picture. And the reality is almost every threat that we're facing today is, you know, transnational, right? So it comprises domestic issues and international issues, and terrorism is no different.

KELLY: January 6 - I know you were not yet running things. The congressional hearings these past few days that have been looking into what happened...

HAINES: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Have been focused on intelligence failures, on intelligence that should have been shared and was not. You know, one striking example - the FBI Norfolk office apparently emailed a report the night before saying there might well be violence on the Capitol and against lawmakers. The leaders of Capitol Police say they never saw that. Can you shed any light on what went wrong?

HAINES: I don't have enough of a sense of it at this stage. And I think, you know, I'm obviously watching the hearings. I'm also learning as much as I can to ensure that we're well-postured moving forward. We have an assignment that you've undoubtedly heard about on domestic terrorism. And we're doing our own report to try to manage - you know, provide a perspective on what the nature and the scope of the threat is at this stage. But I couldn't speak with authority about what happened...

KELLY: It must feel so familiar to somebody who lived through 9/11, which - then there was all the fallout over - then it was the CIA and the FBI not sharing intelligence. It makes you wonder, how are we still not doing this?

HAINES: Yeah. It's - I mean, it is - first of all, the events themselves were so tragic and jarring, I think, for the American people - I know for myself and just watching what happened in this assault on our own democracy. But it's also one of these things where, you know, as you know, like, it takes time to unpack exactly what happened and how to actually address these things more effectively in the future. And I think we'll try to take our time in figuring that out so that we get it right the next time. But I - yeah, I wish I could say that I think that we're ever going to get to a stage where we're not figuring things out and, you know, managing new issues and problems and trying to address them effectively. But this will undoubtedly give us another opportunity to get better.

KELLY: Do you think domestic terrorism is now a greater threat than international?

HAINES: I try to resist comparing them, to be honest, but I think there is no question that the domestic terrorism threat continues to be just an increasing challenge for us. And certainly the racially and ethnically motivated violence that we're seeing is increasing, and we've seen that from the intelligence community over the last few years, I think, quite some jarring reports that demonstrate that. And I think trying to understand that and understand how we're going to manage that over the next few years is going to be a particularly challenging effort but one that's worth obviously digging into among the many that are on our plate during this period.

KELLY: Last question.

HAINES: Yeah.

KELLY: And this is one that - I truly look forward to the day when I no longer have to ask it. But you are the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. It's a big deal.

HAINES: Yeah.

KELLY: How do you think about it?

HAINES: There's a part of me that doesn't even notice it, you know? It's sort of, like, just living my life and working on things and recognizing that I'm so lucky as to have so many colleagues and a boss who doesn't look at me through that lens, right? And that makes an enormous difference, you know, to my work. But then there's also the sort of out-of-body experience of recognizing that this is - what? - the third job I've had where I've been the first woman in government in a position.

And I recognize it's useful to have role models and people who look like you, who make you realize that this is something, you know, you could do, too. And I cannot tell you how inspiring it is to see some of the young women across the intelligence community who are just extraordinarily talented and - you know, and how they're going to be running the world in the next generation and how exciting it is to think that they're not going to have those questions.

KELLY: Avril Haines, thank you.

HAINES: Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: She is the director of National Intelligence. She oversees all 18 U.S. spy agencies and departments.

(SOUNDBITE OF AEROC'S "BLUE EYED BITTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.