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Biden's National Security, Foreign Policy Nominees Face Senate Confirmation Hearings


The faces of the incoming Biden administration's national security team came into focus today with Senate confirmation hearings. On deck were nominees for intelligence, defense, also foreign policy roles. Senators questioned the nominees on how their policies might differ from those of their predecessors. Among our reporters watching - NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre and diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Hello to you both.


GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Greg, I'm going to let you start. Avril Haines, who is poised to become the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence, the first female head of U.S. intelligence, she's had a somewhat unusual journey to get her to this point. Tell us about her.

MYRE: Yeah, she certainly has. She was an only child growing up in New York City. And when she graduated from high school, she spent a year at a judo academy in Japan. And then she studied physics at the University of Chicago. She loved to build things, including the avionics on a used Cessna plane, which she planned to fly from Maine to Europe with her flying instructor. They had to make an emergency landing in Canada. And a little bit later, she married her flight instructor. But she was in her early 30s by the time she graduated from Georgetown Law School and then began this quick rise in the government. One of her jobs was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she got to know the chairman, Senator Joe Biden. She followed Biden to the White House, worked on the National Security Council, was in the No. 2 at the CIA. And now he's picked her to be the first woman to be director of national intelligence.

KELLY: So that is the path she has taken to get here. At her actual hearing today, did she give much of an indication of what she will focus on in this job?

MYRE: She really stressed rebuilding the relationship between the intelligence community and the president. I mean, as we know, President Trump has been at odds with the intelligence community in many ways since Day 1. He's had four directors of national intelligence. The current one, John Ratcliffe, has been widely criticized for politicizing intelligence. Haines didn't mention him by name, but here's what she did say.


AVRIL HAINES: To safeguard the integrity of our intelligence community, the DNI must insist that when it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics ever.

MYRE: She also stressed that China would be a real priority with the rise of its military, its extensive spying network, its theft of intellectual property. But the hearing overall was quite cordial, and I would certainly expect her to be confirmed pretty easily and quickly.

KELLY: All right, Michele, let's get you in here. Give us a little bit on Tony Blinken - his background, why Joe Biden has nominated him to be the nation's top diplomat, secretary of state.

KELEMEN: Right. Well, he goes way back with Biden, so that's one reason. They worked together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is the committee that's considering Blinken's nomination to be secretary of state. He's steeped in foreign policy. He speaks French from his time living in Paris. His uncle and his father were ambassadors. He also talks a lot about his other family members. His grandfather fled the pogroms and found refuge here in America. His stepfather was a Holocaust survivor who was rescued by an African American GI. And he says it's that kind of history that got him interested in government service. Let's take a listen.


ANTONY BLINKEN: I view that tradition as something of a sacred duty - payment on the debt that our family owes to the nation that gave so many of my relatives refuge and extraordinary opportunities across the generations.

KELEMEN: And that's what Blinken says he wants to do. He says America shouldn't - this is what America means to the world. He hopes to restore America's credibility, revitalize alliances, all in the wake of the Trump era.

KELLY: Yeah. It is just so different, so strikingly different in tone and message from the outgoing administration, which leads me to this. If he's confirmed, Blinken will succeed Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. Where might we see the biggest differences in how he runs the State Department?

KELEMEN: Well, a big difference is stylistic, Mary Louise. You know, remember; Pompeo talks about swagger. Blinken talks about leading with both confidence and humility because the U.S. needs partners to solve challenges, so he's much less ideological. He's also talked about the need for a more diverse State Department to represent the face of America, while Pompeo tweeted just today - and this is a quote - "woke-ism and multiculturalism - they're not who America is." That was on Pompeo's official State Department Twitter account. So I think you'll see a big change in tone.

There are also going to be policy differences. Blinken talks about the need to be at the table, while the Trump administration left the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and pulled funding from the World Health Organization. There is one thing that Blinken said today that the Trump administration got right, and that is getting tough on China. But he said the U.S. needs to counter China from a position of strength. And again, that means working with allies not, in his words, denigrating them.

KELLY: Let's see if we can get one more nominee in here. Greg, let's talk about Lloyd Austin, retired four-star Army general. He would be the first Black secretary of defense. Speak to the significance of that.

MYRE: Well, that would be very significant. It really sends an important message at a time when more than 40% of the military is made up of minorities, but it has very few senior Black leaders. Now, Austin's resume is quite impressive. He was born in Alabama in the 1950s, grew up in Georgia. He attended West Point and held a lot of important positions as he rose through the ranks. He was the first Black head of Central Command, which is responsible for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He led the start of the campaign against ISIS in 2014. So this certainly reflects the military's focus on the past two decades. But as we noted earlier, some say the focus should be more on China these days and U.S. naval power in the Pacific and not on land wars in the Middle East.

KELLY: We should note quickly before we move on, Lloyd Austin will have to clear an additional hurdle before he can become defense secretary. He needs a special waiver. Explain, Greg.

MYRE: Right. There's a rule you must be out of uniform, out of the military for seven years before you can become Pentagon chief. And Austin retired just five years ago. Therefore, he'll need this waiver, which would require support in both the full House and the full Senate. Those votes are expected in coming days. But separate from today's confirmation hearing, Austin addressed this in his opening statement today.


LLOYD AUSTIN: I was a general and a soldier, and I'm proud of that. But today I appear before you as a citizen, the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Ga. And I'm proud of that too. And if you confirm me, I am prepared to serve now as a civilian.

MYRE: He would be only the third defense secretary to receive such a waiver. Jim Mattis in 2017 was one of the others. And some in Congress, both Democrats and Republican, say they don't want this to become the norm.

KELLY: Michele, I'm going to give you the last word. As you tried to keep your eye on all these hearings today, did you land on whether there's any unifying thread there?

KELEMEN: Well, they're all people that are - that Biden's been very close to. They all stress this kind of sense of professionalism, getting professionalism back in government service and the need to reinvigorate alliances around the world. And they have a whole lot of challenges ahead to do that.

KELLY: That is Michele Kelemen. She covers the State Department and diplomacy for NPR. And Greg Myre, our national security correspondent - thanks, you two.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.