Video: Wyden Supports Nomination of Avril Haines to be Director of National Intelligence

Mr. President, I rise to discuss the nomination of Avril Haines to be Director of National Intelligence. I also want to outline briefly, where I believe things stand on several sensitive issues with the 17 agencies that make up the Intelligence Community.

The Biden administration and Ms. Haines have an opportunity and a responsibility to turn the page on the cover-ups and lawlessness of the outgoing administration. That is why the first question I asked Ms. Haines was whether she would abide by a law that I authored requiring an unclassified report on who was responsible for the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  Jamal Khashoggi was a U.S. resident who was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and brutally murdered. 

Despite press stories stating that Saudi Arabia’s leader was responsible for the killing, the Trump administration stayed mum. And, for a whole year, the Trump administration simply ignored the law I authored. So I asked Ms. Haines whether she would follow the law and provide that unclassified report on who was responsible for the murder. Her response was straightforward and unequivocal: She will provide the report and respect the law. That statement is a sea change from the stonewalling of the Trump administration, which had taken the position that a law passed by Congress was optional. Ms. Haines’ commitment is also a real step forward for the rule of law, for accountability, for human rights and for freedom of the press everywhere.

Next, I turned to a particularly troubling aspect of the CIA’s recent history. The CIA spied on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee when the staff was writing the torture report. As Deputy Director, Ms. Haines didn’t hold anyone accountable. In my view, this abuse by the CIA turned the whole concept of oversight on its head. The Congress is supposed to do oversight of the Executive Branch, not vice versa. In response to my questions at her hearing, Ms. Haines admitted that the spying on the Committee was wrong. She also agreed that she supported recommendations to expand accountability and would apply that expanded accountability to the Intelligence Community. And, when she was asked about the CIA’s baseless efforts to have Committee staff prosecuted, she agreed that there should be guardrails against that ever happening again. 

The third area I explored is the need to rebuild trust in the Intelligence Community, which is going to require an aggressive and sustained commitment to transparency. A key component of that transparency is making sure Americans know what kind of surveillance the government is conducting on them. And they should especially be told if the government is using legal loopholes in the law and the warrant requirement in the Fourth Amendment. That’s why I asked Ms. Haines about circumstances in which the government, instead of getting a court order, just purchases the private records of Americans from commercial data brokers who are not accountable to anyone. I believe this practice is unacceptable and that the Fourth Amendment is not for sale. I intend to introduce legislation on this topic. But for Congress to tackle this topic, it is vitally important that there be an informed, public debate on what the government is collecting right now and what it believes is the legal basis for that collection.  That is why I was encouraged by how Ms. Haines responded to my question – she said it was critical that the American people have an understanding of when, and under what authorities, the government is buying their private data.

Ms. Haines made a number of other commitments related to transparency issues, many of which relate to the problem of Secret Law. This problem is based on the proposition that the government too often reinterprets a public law in secret and keeps the new interpretation secret under the pretext that reinterpretations must be hidden to keep us safe. The reality is that interpretations of public law must be transparent and public. 

I am a strong opponent of secret law and a strong supporter of transparency. I intend to remind Director Haines about what she has said about transparency and to push hard for the public release of information that the American people deserve to see and can see consistent with protecting their safety.

I will also be pushing for the DNI to fix a broken declassification system.  For years, a flood of new digitally classified information has overwhelmed an obsolete, paper-based declassification system.  The system is so out-of-date that, in order to get a document declassified, government officials actually have to walk the document around Washington, from agency to agency. I have introduced bipartisan legislation to authorize the DNI to fix this problem. Ms. Haines has acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and the DNI’s role in fixing it. It is my intent to make sure that, as DNI, she does not let this long-standing crisis continue.

Some of the starkest differences between the actions of the outgoing administration and the positions taken by Ms. Haines relate to Intelligence Community whistleblowers. The outgoing administration broke the law when it withheld from Congress the complaint of the Ukraine whistleblower – the whistleblower who had identified abuses that resulted in the first impeachment of Donald Trump. This lawlessness undermined both the whistleblower system and the independence of the Intelligence Community Inspector General who had determined that the complaint should be submitted to Congress. Ms. Haines has been clear – the law requires that when the Inspector General determines that a whistleblower complaint is an urgent concern, the DNI cannot keep it from Congress.

Ms. Haines made other commitments related to whistleblowers.  It is my intention to make this issue a priority.  There are whistleblower protection laws — including some that have already been approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee — that need to be enacted. And there are procedures already required by law that the outgoing administration never issued – they just stonewalled. After all the damage done by the Trump administration, repairing and improving whistleblower protections has to be a priority.

The Biden administration and the DNI have a lot on their plate. The country has massive cyber vulnerabilities that need to be addressed immediately. There is more to do in terms of preventing foreign interference in our elections. And we must ensure that our surveillance programs provide security without sacrificing our constitutional rights.  I don’t assume that I will always agree with the incoming administration. And when we disagree, we will have a vigorous debate — as vigorous as when I disagreed with the Trump administration. But, with Ms. Haines as DNI, and with Ambassador Burns as CIA Director, this is shaping up to be a team that will be more open with the public, respect the law and work with Congress to repair the damage of the outgoing administration and protect the national security. That’s why I’ll be supporting Ms. Haines’ nomination to be DNI.