Stort at a glance

  • Avril Haines is the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence for the United States.
  • She was the first member of President Biden’s Cabinet to be confirmed by the Senate.
  • Haines has worked in the legal and intelligence fields for two decades and held several top positions under the Obama administration.

Hollywood has certainly romanticized the life of a spy, but that doesn’t mean the real-life equivalent is any less intriguing — especially in the case of Avril Haines, the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence (DNI). 

Before graduating from law school at Georgetown University, Haines had reportedly become a brown belt at an elite judo institute in Tokyo, repaired car engines at a mechanic shop in Hyde Park, met her husband while taking flying lessons, obtained a degree in physics and owned an independent bookstore and café in Baltimore, Md. Adrian's Book Cafe was named after her mother, who died when Haines was 15, and became a focus of media attention later on for hosting erotica readings, among other literary events. 

Perhaps this untraditional life was to be expected from the daughter of a painter and a biochemist who helped found the CUNY School of Medicine. But on first impression, you might never guess. 


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"She may quite literally be the nicest person any of us have ever met," deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes told Newsweek in 2013, when Haines was nominated to serve as deputy director of the CIA by President Obama.  

It was perhaps the first time but not the last she would become the first woman to hold a position in the male-dominated intelligence community, including deputy national security adviser for the Obama administration. So while she may have been nice, she was also both qualified and experienced.  

"She's very unassuming and extraordinarily modest," Kathryn Ruemmler, former White House counsel, told Newsweek in 2013. "But that can be mistaken for weak. She has fortitude and a real ability to push back."

Two decades after she began her career in law and later national intelligence, Haines assured Congress of that strength before being confirmed in an 84–10 vote, the first of President Biden’s nominees. 


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“The DNI must never shy away from speaking truth to power — even, especially, when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult,” Haines said during her Senate confirmation hearing. “The DNI must insist that, when it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics — ever.”  

Haines's record has been a cause of concern to some. She was involved in the heavily redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture as well as extra-judicial "targeted killings" by drones under the Obama administration. 

When asked about interrogation methods outlined in the report during her confirmation hearing, Haines said, "I believe that waterboarding is, in fact, torture — constitutes torture under the law. And I believe all of those techniques, including techniques that involve cruel and human-degrading treatment, are unlawful from both domestic and international perspective and should not be engaged in regardless, as I said, of whether or not they are effective."

Still, others say her past and array of life experiences will be an asset.

“She has to be able to understand and to lead everyone from analysts to intelligence collectors to engineers to pilots to disguise artists to accountants,” David Priess, a former CIA official, told The Guardian. “Having that diverse set of experiences very much helps her to lead the very diverse and disparate intelligence community.”  


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Published on Jan 27, 2021