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Biden's intelligence chief pick promises to 'speak truth to power' in shift from Trump era

Washington(CNN) President-elect Joe Biden's nominee to lead the US intelligence community, Avril Haines, made clear Tuesday that she intends to continue "speaking truth to power" if confirmed as the first woman to occupy the role, an apparent dig at her immediate predecessors who faced a constant barrage of criticism for failing to do the same during the Trump administration.

In her first public remarks since being tapped as Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence, Haines vowed to speak uncomfortable truths to her new boss that could lead to difficult conversations over the course of Biden administration -- pledging to take a radically different approach to the political loyalists who occupied the job under President Donald Trump and often used their perch atop the intelligence community to do his political bidding.

"You know that I have never shied away from speaking truth to power. And that will be my charge as director of national intelligence. I've worked for you for a long time, and I accept this nomination knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise," Haines said Tuesday. "And that you value the perspective of the intelligence community. And that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult, and I assure you there will be those times."

Some progressives have questioned Haines' record on sensitive issues, criticizing her role in the Obama administration's drone program, which human rights groups say killed hundreds of civilians, and accusing her of complicity in the CIA's use of torture or "enhanced interrogation techniques" after 9/11.

But several former intelligence and national security officials who previously worked with Haines told CNN she has been a plain speaker throughout her career, including during her time as a top CIA official and deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama.

"She is someone who has a willingness to speak up and speak out if she sees something that needs to be said, so she is not somebody who hesitates to be contrarian as necessary," said Haines' former boss, CIA director John Brennan.

Former Deputy Director of Intelligence Susan Gordon also had high praise for Haines, telling CNN that she is "a wonderful choice, trusted by the President-elect, whip smart and -- even better -- a great representative for the craft and the humans of the intelligence committee."

"I expect great things of her," Gordon added.

Biden formally introduced Haines as his nominee for the top intelligence job during an event Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware, where he praised her as "brilliant" and "humble," while highlighting her wide breadth of life experience as an asset to the incoming administration.

"I know because I've worked with her for over a decade," Biden said, adding that Haines can "talk literature and theoretical physics, fixing cars, flying planes and running a bookstore cafe, in a single conversation -- because she's done all of that."

"Above all, if she gets word of a threat coming to our shores -- like another pandemic or foreign interference in our elections -- she will not stop raising the alarms until the right people take action," he added.

A different path

While many of Haines' predecessors were career intelligence officials before assuming the DNI role, she took a different path.

At the University of Chicago, she pursued a degree in physics but took some time off to study aviation, learning from an instructor who would later become her husband.

The couple opened a bookstore in Baltimore, which would sometimes host readings of erotic literature before Haines went on to law school at Georgetown University.

Her unique background also gives her a unique perspective that will serve her well as DNI, according to Brennan.

"Avril will bring to the DNI position a unique blend of national security experience from her time serving at the White House, CIA, National Security Council and Department of State," he told CNN.

"Her eclectic and even bohemian background really reflects her great intellectual curiosity about so many things -- whether it is physics or the law or managing a book store or piloting a plane," Brennan told CNN.

"Avril just wants to experience all aspects of life, and I think that background really gives her, I think, gives her a tremendous perspective as far as the role that the director of national intelligence needs to play in this very complex, complicated world of ours," he added.

Haines has worked with Biden for more than a decade in a variety of national security roles but now looks to take over an intelligence community that has been repeatedly disparaged and sidelined by Trump throughout his four years in office.

"To our intelligence professionals: The work you do, oftentimes under the most austere conditions imaginable, is just indispensable," she said on Tuesday.

After Haines was first announced as Biden's pick for the DNI job on Monday, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee immediately leaned on his Republican colleagues to confirm her quickly.

"Avril is smart and capable, with a background that will serve her well as director of national intelligence," said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia. "While I expect that she will face rigorous questioning from senators on both sides of the aisle, the sooner we can get a confirmed DNI in place to start fixing the damage the last four years have done to our intelligence agencies, the better."

Lingering concerns

But while Biden's move to nominate Haines has garnered praise from some Democrats and former officials who worked with her at the National Security Council and CIA, the pick has also prompted backlash from some progressives, who accuse her of having a questionable stance on a variety of issues, including torture.

While serving as deputy CIA director from 2013 to 2014, Haines decided not to punish agency personnel who were accused of improperly accessing the Senate Intelligence Committee's computers during their investigation into the CIA's use of enhanced interrogation techniques -- a dispute that prompted criticism from Democrats on the panel.

She also voiced support for Trump's current CIA director, Gina Haspel, when she was nominated for the job in 2018 and faced criticism for her involvement in the execution of George W. Bush-era CIA interrogation programs, including those carried out at the "black site" prison she reportedly ran.

At the time, Haines' support for Haspel put her at odds with many Democrats on the panel, and it remains a sticking point for some within the party.

"Haines has an unfortunate record of repeatedly covering up for torture and torturers. Her push for maximalist redactions of the torture report, her refusal to discipline the CIA personnel who hacked the Senate and her vociferous support for Gina Haspel -- which was even touted by the Trump White House as Democrats stood in nearly unanimous opposition to the then-nominee to lead the CIA -- should be interrogated during the confirmation process," David Segal, co-founder and executive director of the group Demand Progress, told CNN.