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At 51, Haines has built an impressive resume and distinguished herself in her government service. But her role in the Obama administration’s controversial drone program troubles critics of the United States’ ongoing foreign wars.
The administration of President-elect Joe Biden looks to be one of the most diverse in history. It will also be one in which an unprecedented number of women have the potential to break the glass ceiling in various government positions.
One of those women could be Avril Haines, who Biden has tapped to be the first woman to serve as the director of national intelligence, assuming she is confirmed by the Senate.
Like many of Biden’s cabinet nominees, Haines provides a link between his administration and that of his former boss, President Barack Obama. At 51, Haines has built an impressive resume and distinguished herself in her government service. But her role in the Obama administration’s controversial drone program troubles critics of the United States’ ongoing foreign wars.
The early years of Avril Haines
Avril Danica Haines, born in Manhattan, New York in 1969, is the daughter of Thomas Haines, a biochemist and professor, and Adrian Rappin, a scientist and artist. For most of her young life, Haines’ mother had serious health issues. After years of Haines taking care of her mother’s medical needs at home, Adrian died in 1985. Haines was only 15.
Instead of going directly into college after high school, Haines traveled to Japan and enrolled in the Kodokan Institute, an elite judo school in Tokyo. She attained the rank of brown belt before returning to the US to study theoretical physics at the University of Chicago in 1988.
Haines met her future husband, David Davighi, in the summer before her senior year at the University of Chicago. She had returned to New York for the summer and, with a dream of flying her own plane to Europe, signed up for pilot lessons in New Jersey. Davighi was her flight instructor.
The two bought a plane together but were never able to make the flight to Europe. Nonetheless, they fell in love and married years later.
Haines and Davighi would eventually sell the plane so they could buy a former bar in Baltimore. It gave Haines the chance to fulfill a different dream: to open and run her own bookstore and cafe. That bookstore, named Adrian’s Book Café in her mother’s honor, was a swift success amid the gentrifying neighborhood. It also developed in Haines a passion for community organizing.
Haines had briefly enrolled in Johns Hopkins University in 1992, before dropping out to open the bookstore. She returned to school in 1998, enrolling at Georgetown Law, where she completed a law degree in 2001.
Avril Haines’ entry into government
A 2013 Newsweek profile of Haines paints her as mixing good-natured modesty with legal expertise. She is said to have “a sweet personality, humility bordering on shyness, [and] a deep empathy for others” while being “a liberal pragmatist when it comes to national-security law.”
Haines’s legal career immediately took her into government work, with her first position being a clerk for an appeals court judge. In 2003, she started as a lawyer in the US State Department. There she focused on international law and human rights.
During her time with the department, it was uncovered that the George W. Bush administration had illegally negotiated agreements with foreign countries without Senate approval. Those agreements, overseen by the State Department, allowed for extralegal interrogations at secret Central Intelligence Agency black sites, acts that critics have called torture and war crimes.
While Haines was not directly involved in the torture program, she worked as part of the team that legitimatized the foreign agreements.
Following her initial stint at the State Department, Haines moved to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was overseen at the time by then-Senator Biden. Haines was with the committee from 2007 to 2008, then returned to the State Department for two more years of service.
Over her time at the department, she served in the Office of the Legal Advisor, the Office of Treaty Affairs and the Office of Political Military Affairs.
Avril Haines in the Obama administration
Following her time with the State Department, the Obama administration brought Haines on as the Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Counsel to the President for National Security Affairs at the White House.
It was in that position that Haines oversaw the legal foundation for Obama’s controversial drone strike program. She has been described as the “architect” of a program that resulted in multiple civilian deaths, one of the blackest marks on Obama’s foreign policy resume. However, Haines has been credited for making the program more transparent, with stricter legal guidance over drone usage.
In many targeted countries, the number of civilian deaths due to drone attacks declined after 2011, though that is not the case across the board. Afghanistan, for instance, was a regular target of the program up through Obama’s last year in office, experiencing between 65 and 105 civilian deaths in 2016 alone. Three to seven of those killed were children.
Haines is said to have impressed Obama so much that in 2013, when then-CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell retired, she was appointed to the role despite having never served in the CIA, becoming the first woman to ever hold the position. There was reportedly skepticism within the agency about her taking on the role, but she quickly proved herself in the position.
She served at the CIA until 2015, when she was then named the Deputy National Security Advisor, once again becoming the first woman to serve in the position. The announcement of her appointment stated that Haines was “a model public servant” and “respected across the government for her intelligence, work ethic, and humility.”
Haines briefly left government service following the election of President Donald Trump. In those four years, Haines joined multiple former Obama administration officials, including Antony Blinken (recently announced as Biden’s choice for secretary of state) at WestExec Advisors, a consultancy group that advises US companies on global investment decisions.
That multiple potential cabinet members for Biden worked as consultants has raised concerns among progressives who fear their business ties could affect government policy under the new administration. Neither Haines nor Blinken are currently employed with WestExec.
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