Meet Biden’s pick to lead the US intelligence community
Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to helm the U.S. intelligence community, is a national security professional described by her colleagues as hard working, experienced and willing to speak unvarnished truth to power.
But she’s a nominee who has quickly encountered pushback from the left over aspects of her record.
Haines, a deputy national security adviser to former President Obama, has perhaps one of the most unusual and eclectic résumés one can come across in government.
She has degrees in physics and international law. She rebuilt and flew a plane and owned an independent bookstore and café in Baltimore named after her late mother before serving in powerful roles across government in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. She has worked in the State Department, White House and at the CIA.
Well respected in intelligence and government circles, Haines, 51, would be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. Biden announced plans to nominate Haines on Nov. 23.
Those who know her describe her as kind, intelligent, self-effacing and deeply committed to her work. Haines is said to have worked near constantly when she served in government, only getting a few hours of sleep each night and regularly carrying around extra-large iced coffees.
“I think it’s an inspiring choice,” said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence under Obama who worked with Haines when she was in the White House and at the CIA.
Haines has previously worked alongside Biden, a similarity among several members of his incoming senior team. She was detailed from the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser to work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2007 to 2008 when then-Sen. Biden was chairman, before joining the Obama administration.
“She was probably the hardest working member of anybody in the legal adviser’s office,” said John Bellinger, the State Department’s former legal adviser who promoted Haines during the Bush administration.
Haines eventually moved to the White House, where she worked as the National Security Council’s deputy legal adviser and, later, legal adviser under Obama. She played a significant role in reforming the administration’s drone strike program.
Obama then nominated Haines to serve as the State Department’s legal adviser, only to withdraw her name so that he could tap her to be the CIA’s deputy director under John Brennan, with whom she worked closely in the White House. Though Haines did not have prior experience in the intelligence community, she was well liked by those in the agency.
“I think that she was in a bit of a difficult position in the sense that she was Brennan’s deputy and Brennan was a dominating and commanding figure,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a now-retired CIA veteran of 26 years who overlapped with Haines. “Everyone saw that she had this tremendous work ethic. She was certainly studious, she was smart, she certainly cared about people at the agency.”
Haines is expected to withstand scrutiny during the Senate confirmation process for her role in the drone program, as well as her approval of a CIA review board decision in 2015 not to discipline agency personnel for intruding in computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee when it was investigating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. Haines was also part of the team that redacted the committee’s report on the program.
Those actions have drawn harsh criticism from progressives.
“It’s incredibly concerning that somebody who tried to keep Bush-era torture under wraps and then covered for people who were spying on the Senate’s investigation on that torture would be elevated to such a position, especially under a Democratic administration,” said David Segal, founder of the progressive group Demand Progress, who opposes Haines’s nomination.
Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said it would be important for Haines to face questions on the drone program and the torture probe during her confirmation. Prasow raised concerns about the number of senior Obama administration officials named to roles in the incoming Biden administration, saying it indicated there may not be changes to previous policies.
But Prasow also said she has found Haines to be “open” and “kind” in their interactions and committed to greater transparency — characteristics she hoped Haines would bring in the new intelligence role if she is confirmed.
Haines also triggered criticism on the left for her endorsement of Gina Haspel, who was involved in the CIA’s torture program, to be confirmed to be the first female director of the agency under President Trump. Haspel received sharp criticism from human rights groups and some on the left but was ultimately confirmed in a 54-45 vote, with most Democrats opposing her.
Those who worked with Haines in government have been perplexed by the scrutiny of her record and say it is misplaced. They note that she was a vocal advocate for human rights. Toward the end of Obama’s second term, her proponents note, Haines was instrumental in raising the refugee admissions cap when she was deputy national security adviser.
“She is so humane that she sees every governmental action from the perspective of the person on the receiving end,” said Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s legal adviser from 2009 to 2013.
Intelligence veterans also defended her work related to the Senate’s torture investigation, saying she was defending the agency at the time and not the enhanced interrogation techniques practiced under the Bush administration.
A Biden-Harris transition official said Haines “strongly” opposed the Bush administration’s interrogation techniques and worked to ensure there were only “minimal redactions” in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s public report on torture.
Haines will face confirmation hearings before the same committee, which still has several members from when the investigation was concluded.
Haines has already had consultations with a bipartisan group of senators, according to a person familiar with the talks, though it is unclear who she has spoken with beyond Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Haines is also likely to face questions about her corporate ties. She was a principal at WestExec Advisers, a Washington consulting firm cofounded by Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, and reportedly worked for Palantir, the data analytics company founded by Peter Thiel. House Republicans have already sought to make Haines’s and Blinken’s work for WestExec an issue, and progressives have raised concerns about their corporate ties as well.
Haines will face steep challenges if she is confirmed to head the Office of Director of National Intelligence, though officials say she will be advantaged by both her experience in government and her established relationship with Biden. She’ll undoubtedly be a key adviser to Biden on how to respond to the massive cyber breach that was recently revealed and is believed to have been perpetrated by Russia.
Former officials say that one of Haines’s most pressing tests will be demonstrating that politics is not influencing intelligence, in addition to repairing the relationship between intelligence community and political leaders following four years of the Trump administration, where officials were publicly admonished by the president when they provided assessments contrary to his viewpoint.
“Avril will certainly call it the way it is and she will be accurate in her intelligence advising without shading the intelligence, but she also will be somebody that the president will trust implicitly,” said Bellinger.