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Transcript: NPR's Full Interview With DNI Avril Haines

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.
Claire Harbage/NPR
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.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, in her first interview in the role, speaks to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about a new report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the state of morale in the intelligence community and her commitment to returning and resuming public testimony.

Mary Louise Kelly: Let's start with the news. You [Friday] have declassified a report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the headline of which is I'll let you give it.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines: Sure. I mean, I think the report [does] not provide a lot of new information to people. Frankly, it's largely been reported. But we do assess that the operation to capture or kill Jamal Khashoggi was, in fact, approved by [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman. And we provide our assessment and then we also identify other individuals that participated in the events.

Are you making a distinction with that verb approved as opposed to ordered?

Well, I think I'm just using the language, frankly, of the report itself — what it was that was assessed.

Does it feel like you just dropped a bomb into U.S.-Saudi relations?

I mean, obviously, it's going to be challenging. And, you know, it's among a number of things that are challenging that the president is managing right now. But I am hopeful and it is certainly I know the president's view to keep the channels of communication open and to try to work through these issues. But it's also a part of what we do in the intelligence community, I think is just try to provide what we see and make sure that it is as clear as possible and that we're providing that analysis and in sort of unvarnished way. And I know that's, you know, part of what it is that was hoped for from the Congress, I think, in passing this law and putting it forward.

Well, I was going to ask because Congress passed a law in 2019 saying you had to provide a declassified version of this report.


What was the holdup?

I couldn't speak to what occurred over the last few years, obviously. You know, I think it it's —

Was this already written when you came in last month?

There was a classified report that had been provided to the Congress, and we looked at that report and we ultimately considered additional intelligence that had been done since that report had been delivered to the Congress. And we ultimately pulled out what we believed could be put forward while still being protective of sensitive sources and methods. And that's something that the law also calls for, is that we provide an unclassified report, but also that we consider what is necessary to protect sensitive sources and methods. So that's what we provided. And it does take time. I mean, to be fair, it is a challenging process in every circumstance. You sort of have to make sure that you're doing it in a deliberate, careful way in order to provide the information that you can publicly.

Was there any dissent, any spy agency that disagreed with this conclusion?

No, there wasn't. I mean, but I think it's, you know, in terms of the ultimate provision of this information, but there was certainly debate and deliberation over exactly what should be provided and how it should be done and so on. So, you know, that is a natural scheme of things.

Did your office come under any political pressure in completing this, in declassifying it? Were you challenged to soften the finding in any way?

None whatsoever. And I mean, I think that will be clear by virtue of the report's contents, in a sense.

What does it do to your relationship as the head of U.S. intelligence — your relationship with your counterparts in Saudi Arabia — that your office has put out a report fingering their Crown Prince as a killer?

Well, I think, you know, the fact that the Crown Prince approved that operation and, you know, we rather have assessed that is also likely not to be a surprise. And, you know, I am sure it is not going to make things easier. But I think it's also fair to say that it is not unexpected. And I hope we are able to continue to do work where it makes sense for us to do work and to continue to communicate as we have.

We know the president reached out to King Salman to give him a heads up and talk through the relationship. Have you been in contact with your counterpart?

No, I have not.

I mean I am thinking Mohammed bin Salman is not just the Crown Prince. He is the defense minister. Your report states that he is in absolute control of the kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, which makes me wonder about the risk of blowback from this. If he decides, you know what, I'm not so interested in sharing intelligence with a country that has just written this really mean thing about me. Are you worried about that?

I mean, I think I hope that we're both able to work together on the issues of mutual interest. And we've obviously indicated over many, many years our commitment to Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity, and our intelligence services have worked closely together over the years. And, you know, I think we have both had opportunities to have bad news in our presses, and you know, from our different government institutions, and still we've managed to pursue those issues. So I'm hopeful that the relationship will continue to be what the relationship is. And I also hope that we continue to be able to say what we think when we have those opportunities and when it's appropriate to do so.

Yeah. Last question on this, which is just again, how you see the risk of damage to the broader relationship. And I'm asking you now as the head of U.S. intelligence, but you've tracked that relationship from perches at the White House and the State Department and the CIA.

I think it's too soon to tell, in some respects. I, you know, to be honest, it is not surprising, I suppose, to see a shift in the relationship in some ways with the new administration and a new position and a number of challenging issues that we face together. But it's also, you know, President Biden has been doing this for a very long time, and has worked on those relationships and I think has built those personal ties. And I think there will be ways to weather the various storms that we have in front of us.

And this we were told that this was going to drop yesterday. Was there any reason it didn't? Is there any change last minute or anything like that?

No change to the report itself.

Can you share what the reason for the delay was?

No, I think, frankly, it came today. It came as soon as we could make it happen.

Let me shift us, change gears, and ask about the state of the intelligence community —


Today, following four years of undeniable tensions between the intelligence community and the president that they served and following years of turbulence and turnover, I went back and looked, and when your immediate predecessor, John Ratcliffe, came in, he was the fourth permanent or acting director of national intelligence in less than a year. If I asked you, Director Haines, for a word to describe the state of morale in the intelligence community that you inherited, what would it be?

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, 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 this is one of those things where what I'm trying to do is focus on the future and really try to see what I can do to make sure that the intelligence community knows, first of all, just how essential their work is and how critical it is across, you know, everything that the U.S. government does and in certainly foreign policy, national security space and the decision making that we do. And I have seen that from so many different perspectives, frankly. And I know how, you know how just worthwhile it is to have an intelligence community that can actually produce intelligence in a way that helps decision makers make better decisions, have better advantage of information that is useful to them in those moments that is so critical. So that is certainly something that I'm looking forward to doing. I think it's also true that there's just been a lot of concern about the degree to which, you know, analysis has been politicized. And and I think —

In your view, was it? Was intelligence politicized?

I think there was, it certainly looked to me from the outside, and again, it's always hard to tell exactly what's happening 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, you know, from my perspective, I've seen just how hard analysts work to make sure that what they're putting forward is, in fact, you know, credible and legitimate and looked at from every possible perspective in order to make sure that it is, you know, useful, frankly, for policymakers and something that they can rely on in those moments when they're not sure what's the right information, so —

What are the consequences of that. Does the bad blood just go away?

Clearly not.

Right. I mean, I think this is one of those things where it's 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 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? That is one thing. And I do think that matters. I think saying that and seeing that often, you know, reinforcing it is useful. But it is you know, it is not going to change everything in a day. And I think part of the challenges 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 part of it I'm finding is, you know, just the insatiable demand that he has for intelligence and people starting to see that he cares, that he's reading these materials, that, you know, he's asking questions. He wants to know, how do you think about it this way? Is there something else that I should be thinking about? That type of thing, which in a very natural human way, I think gives people a sense of, you know, just the morale goes up, right? People care about what I'm doing and therefore I feel better about my job. And that is a part of, I think, what's happening during this period. But it's going to take some time. And I think we're looking at a variety of different things that we can do to kind of bolster that in the community.

Are you briefing the president every day?

So I've been in the PDB every day. I bring different briefers for the most part —

The president's daily briefing.

Yeah, exactly. And you know, sometimes I will do part of the briefing and sometimes they'll do part of the briefing and we go through it.

Is your plan to have the CIA director in there with you once that confirmation process plays out?

Yes, Bill Burns is an absolutely amazing human being, and I can't wait, frankly, for him to get into place. And David Cohen, who is acting right now, has also been phenomenal. And they will come and I expect this will continue when Bill is in office every so often to sort of do a deep dive on something and whatnot. But generally, you know, we're doing it as we had previously, which is essentially that the DNI, as the president's intelligence adviser, you know, is the one that sort of managing the PDB in a sense, and which, of course, brings in the CIA's work, considerable amount of work, into the PDB.

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

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, a 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, have absolutely no issues with that. And I am, you know, much of the work of the intelligence community, as we all know, just continues to move from administration to administration. And what happens is the policy guidance changes and our priorities change. And we work to make sure that we're providing things as we should consistent with that policy guidance. And I think generally, you know, that is what we're trying to do.

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 and to join duty assignments and things like that and making sure that we're working to integrate essentially across the community, which is one of our main jobs. And it's I think, you know, this probably resonates for a lot of people who try to work issues where you're trying to integrate things across a broad range of characters, in a sense. But our community is huge. And it is 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.

Just to follow what you said, you're undermanned right now. Can you put any kind of number on that? Like by how many people or what percentage or how desperate is it?

No, no. It's more that we have like a number of, you know, billets and we have less than actually the number of people that we could actually have in. But it is something where we need to bring in intelligence, you know, professionals from different parts of the community to really sort of come into the community as a whole and try to do the work that we do generally. And it's a particularly useful process whereby folks from different parts of the common components are come into the intelligence community where they have an opportunity to step out of their particular fiefdom, in a sense, and really look across the community and learn about what other parts of the community are doing and how it works with their part of the community.

One of the traditions that fell by the wayside during the Trump presidency was hearing from you, from the leaders of U.S. intelligence. Gina Haspel, as director of CIA, did not give interviews to journalists. And by the end, there was not public testimony. The Worldwide Threats hearing, which is an annual ritual, one of the few occasions Americans actually get to hear from the leaders of U.S. intelligence, was not happening in public. You're giving an interview to us today — your first and I thank you for that. Will you also commit to returning and resuming public testimony so that Americans can hear directly?

Yeah, I did so in my confirmation hearing and I really learned honestly, you know, over the years just how important it is for us to do that. I think it's--

It's hard, I know, to talk about classified stuff in an unclassified setting, but it matters.

And it's like you can't answer any questions that are useful. It is definitely tough. But there's real value in, I think, sort of setting the table and people understanding where we perceive to be the threats and how we prioritize them and how we think about them a little bit. And it sets a baseline for folks, I think. And I've seen how much the public appreciates it, how much Congress appreciates it, and I think it's a worthwhile endeavor. So I will do that.

And in terms of, you know, doing interviews and things like that, I think it's a balance. 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 what's odd about the heads of the communities that we're you know, we are political appointments in that sense, but we are you know, we see ourselves certainly I see myself as not a political animal in this job. And so therefore, trying to work on a bipartisan basis, trying to make sure that I'm presenting that inside the U.S. government, 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. And that part of a public, you know, persona I think is worthwhile, like going out and giving speeches at universities or meeting folks, you know, to tell them about what the intelligence community does, I think can be really helpful.

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. Is it still the right set up to fight the threat of domestic terrorism?

Yeah, it's a great question. And I mean, I think part of the challenge is also, you know, people question also the reason we got set up, is that still a good reason generally for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence? How do we work through these things? And I'm a huge believer, obviously, probably. But here's how I think about it. I think, first of all, there is an ongoing need of a Director of National Intelligence, really, to integrate intelligence across the community and that sort of, first and foremost, the value that we bring, in a sense. And in doing that, it's integrating to sort of resource allocation collection, but it's also integrating the analysis and the pieces that we do.

I guess my question is just a specific one. Do you need to totally rethink the National Counterterrorism Center, for example, if it's domestic terrorism, not foreign. So are those conversations that are happening?

Well, that so what I was going to get to you 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. 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 for the policy customers, basically. And I think that's absolutely necessary in this space.

So, to your point, 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. Like even for the domestic terrorism piece, there are rarely things that are so exclusively domestic that they don't touch on the international, but even when you don't have links per say, there are lessons to be learned, right? And so there's sort of a way for us, I think, to participate in providing the lessons that we've learned on international terrorism and our analysis there in order to provide it to the domestic terrorism space as well.

January 6th. I know you were not yet running things. The congressional hearings these past few days that have been looking into what happened, have been focused on intelligence failures, on intelligence that should have been shared and was not. 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?

I don't have enough of a sense of it at this stage, and I think, you know, I'm obviously watching the hearings and 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.

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

Yeah, 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, it's 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 and the next time. But, yeah, I wish I could say 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. So, yeah.

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

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 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 two 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.

Last question, and this is one that I truly look forward to the day when I no longer have to ask it. But you were the first woman to serve as Director of National Intelligence. It's a big deal. How do you think about it?

You know, I sort of, this will make sense to you, Mary Louise, because you have your own glass ceilings that you've broken in these scenarios. But 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 just, first of all, how many people, how many women, have come before me, have paved the way for me to be able to do this and and how many remarkable women I get to work with who have done just extraordinary things and just how much fun it is, frankly, to see them succeed in these different spaces, but also how important it is to talk about, it just as you do, because I think despite the fact that you don't want to be asking these questions, in a sense, you really realize it's useful to have role models and, you know, folks that I did, people who look like you, who make you realize that this is something 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 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.

Avril Haines, thank you.

Thank you so much, Mary Louise.

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