Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2013 and at the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
For almost four years, President Donald Trump has trashed the American intelligence community. He’s appointed political acolytes to top national security jobs, pilloried expert analysis and polluted intelligence with his personal politics. But with President-elect Joe Biden’s nomination of Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence, we will soon have a reliable expert leading our intelligence community.
I know Haines. When I was a staffer at the White House National Security Council during President Barack Obama’s administration, she and I were often two of the last people left on the White House compound each night. As the National Security Council’s top lawyer, Haines worked seemingly nonstop to advise the National Security Adviser and the President on legal considerations associated with national security decisions. Working beside her for several years, I saw the intellect, focus, leadership and dedication she brought to national security policymaking. Her incredible background – including her love of science, flying planes and brown belt in judo – may read like a movie script, but it’s real.
Later, when she served as Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Counsel to the President for National Security Adviser and then as the Deputy Director of the CIA, so many of her former colleagues, including many of us women, knew the skillset she brought to bear. After serving as the first female Deputy Director of the CIA, she is the first ever female nominee for the DNI job. But it’s not only her gender that makes her nomination remarkable. It’s what, if confirmed, she could do in her new role.
Under Trump, the DNI has become grossly politicized. Richard Grenell, the former ambassador to Germany who served a stint as acting director at DNI this year, was a right-wing political force before, during and after his time. Current DNI John Ratcliffe has painted himself into a similar politicized box – seemingly serving more as a political surrogate for the Trump administration than the leader of an integrated and apolitical intelligence community. Their actions are a disgrace to the role of the DNI, which rests on providing apolitical, objective and unbiased intelligence to their customers.
Haines could not be any more different. Among her other accomplishments, she’s a skilled lawyer, a physicist and has been described by a colleague as someone who “may quite literally be the nicest person any of us have ever met.” I can confirm that kindness and her overwhelming drive to always get the best information.
In the time that I worked with her, I never once heard her mention politics or party or anything of that sort. Instead she showed up prepared, with copious notes, at each and every meeting. She wanted to help inform policy decisions, not play politics or try to get herself into the public spotlight. I never once heard her tell a policymaker what she thought they wanted to hear – further confirming what she said in her remarks on Tuesday, that she “never shied away from speaking truth to power.” That’s why the intelligence community needs her more than ever.
Haines also excels at multitasking, and that’s going to be a good thing as soon as she is (hopefully) confirmed by the Senate. Not only will she have to do her statutorily outlined responsibilities, she will concurrently have to restore the soul of our intelligence community while dealing with a highly complex threat landscape. From Covid-19 related intelligence issues to the growing threat of misinformation to shifting geopolitics, there will be no shortage of intelligence issues to analyze and collect on.
Overall, Biden’s cabinet nominations thus far show how serious he is about restoring the national security apparatus to its most effective form, free of politics and focused on doing what’s in the best interests of our national security. Haines will be primary part of that process – and not only because of her longstanding relationships with key intelligence customers in the new administration, including Biden, Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser nominee Jake Sullivan and others.
The intelligence community is vast – comprised of 17 organizations – and the mission of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is to “lead and support IC integration; delivering insights, driving capabilities, and investing in the future.” That’s why the DNI is, statutorily, supposed to have extensive national security experience – something Ratcliffe sorely lacks. Haines, on the other hand, has extensive national security experience in the executive branch, having served in the White House, at the CIA and at the State Department earlier on in her career. As such, she understands the role of intelligence in policy making and has deep expertise when it comes to working with members of the intelligence community.
Plus, in the wake of Trump’s undermining of the intelligence community, Haines’ track record of apolitical public service will help her restore the soul of the intelligence community which, at its core, is supposed to speak truth to power. Rebuilding morale and recruiting and retaining top talent will undoubtedly be a focus for our new DNI as Trump pushed out career officials and insulted intelligence analysis. Based on her reputation, leadership capabilities, intelligence and character, Haines is up to that task.
The ODNI’s relationship with Congress has also been under serious strain these last four years. With intelligence officials canceling election security briefings and seemingly censoring information that the Trump found politically inconvenient, Haines will have to repair the relationship with members of Congress, regardless of their political affiliation. Haines worked on the Hill as deputy chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chairman, and she has a solid reputation with Congress from her years of government service.
Haines is also a respected figure on the world stage. Trump’s politically motivated selective declassifications of intelligence and cavalier attitude with classified information had to have given our intelligence partners pause as their own sources and methods could be compromised. Our allies won’t have to be concerned about the DNI aiding and abetting the President’s political errands because that’s not how Biden nor how Haines operate. And that is good news, not just for national security, but for the world at large.