A bureaucrat…political appointee…no spy.
The Least Likely Spy
By Daniel Klaidman
The morning light was just breaking over Washington, D.C. At the White
House, the early cleaning shift was already on the job. As Avril Haines
walked through the quiet, darkened halls, she smiled and waved to a worker
pushing a polishing machine, buffing the marble floors. It was 5:30 a.m. in
mid May and Haynes was leaving work. She would return by 7, after a shower
and change of clothes at her Capitol Hill home—and after picking up her
habitual iced grande whole milk latte at the local Starbucks, where the
baristas are on a first-name basis with her.
The past few weeks had been a grueling run for Haines, the top lawyer for
the National Security Council. On this morning, she was laboring over the
“playbook,” President Obama’s massively complex and bureaucratically
contentious effort to reform the administration’s lethal drone program. But
the truth is, it was only a slight departure from Haines’s typically
relentless work routine. Since becoming the National Security Council’s
legal adviser in 2011, she had been working on a wide array of highly
complicated and legally sensitive issues—generally until 1 or 2 in the
morning, sometimes later—that go to the core of U.S. security interests.
Among them were the legal requirements governing U.S. intervention in Syria
and the range of highly classified options for thwarting Iran’s nuclear
program. All the while, Haines was sometimes summoned in the middle of the
night to weigh in on whether a suspected terrorist could be lawfully
incinerated by a drone strike.
Earlier this month, Obama selected Haines to be deputy director of the CIA,
where she will serve under the new CIA director, John Brennan. In some
respects, picking Haines made a lot of sense, given her national-security
credentials and her well-known work ethic. But in another respect, it was a
surprising choice. Ask around about Haines, and colleagues will often
describe some character traits not usually associated with the CIA—or, for
that matter, with rapid ascent inside the Beltway: a sweet personality,
humility bordering on shyness, a deep empathy for others. “She may quite
literally be the nicest person any of us have ever met,” says Deputy
National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes, who has worked closely with
Haines’s journey reflects a flair for adventure, an appetite for risk, and
an ability to overcome adversity.
That personality plays out every day in Haines’s interactions with top
national-security officials in some of the most charged, high-stakes
settings in government. She is known for her deferential style—Attorney
General Eric Holder has occasionally admonished her to call him “Eric”
rather than “Mr. Attorney General”—and tends to eschew the Washington habit
Even under normal circumstances, these traits might seem an odd fit at an
agency tasked with deception and death. But they are especially surprising
at a moment when the White House is attempting a far-reaching, and
controversial, plan to rein in the CIA’s role in the war on terror. Haines,
in many ways the ultimate outsider, will be working to reform a proud and
deeply insular culture. To be sure, not every top CIA official of recent
vintage has come from within the agency. But none has been quite like
Haines. She will be the first woman to hold the deputy job at an agency that
is still dominated by men. And she will be a lawyer in a culture of
forward-leaning operators who fret about their hands being tied by
risk-averse attorneys. Moreover, she has spent most of her career in
government working at the State Department, an agency that does not
typically share the same outlook as the CIA. (Indeed, when Obama tapped
Haines for the CIA position, her nomination to be State Department legal
adviser was pending before the Senate. It has since been withdrawn.)
There are plenty of jaded intelligence hands who see nothing but trouble
ahead for Haines. Even some of her colleagues advised against taking the
job. And Haines herself raised questions—at first—about whether the post was
a good fit, before Obama coaxed her into taking it.
Yet there is a lot more to Avril Haines than simply a capacity for hard work
and a kind exterior. “She is as caring and decent a person as I’ve ever had
the blessing to work with, full stop,” says Denis McDonough, the White House
chief of staff. “But we’re not going to make the NSC’s legal adviser
Indeed, Langley does not yet know about Haines’s unusual, even exotic, path
to the pinnacle of the U.S. spy world. It is a twisting journey that
reflects a flair for adventure, an appetite for risk taking, and an ability
to overcome adversity. Haines, who is intensely private, has not shared key
aspects of her truly unconventional personal story with even her closest
colleagues, let alone her possible adversaries. Haines declined to be quoted
for this article, but confirmed details of her life story. Taken together,
they form a set of character-building experiences that suggest she should
not be taken lightly at the CIA.
THE SOUND of the bell still haunts her.
Avril Danica Haines, an only child, was born in 1969 into a household alive
with scientific inquiry and artistic fire. Her mother, Adrian Rappin, was a
brilliant scientist who became a painter. Her father, Thomas Haines, was a
biochemist and academic. Their apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was
what you might expect of an artist and professor. Their shelves overflowed
with books; paintings covered the walls and piled up wherever there was
space. Adrian was an intense and vivacious woman who burned the candle at
both ends, throwing lively parties and then working feverishly in her studio
when seized with fits of creativity. She was also exacting in her standards,
both for herself and for those she loved. Avril’s father was a self-effacing
and deeply empathetic man, who would ask his daughter every day whether she
had done something kind for someone.
When Avril was 4, her mother’s health began to falter. She had chronic
emphysema and later contracted avian tuberculosis, a bacterial disease she
likely caught from pigeons nesting in the outside air conditioner. The
combined illnesses severely diminished her lung capacity and confined her to
a wheelchair or a medical bed in the large, high-ceilinged living room.
By the time she was 12, Avril took on the extraordinary responsibility of
caring for her mother. Every day, Adrian had to be sealed for hours on end
inside a head-to-shoulders respirator bag, a contraption with a vacuum pump
to expand her lungs so that she could breathe. Later she had a tracheotomy,
a surgical procedure that allowed her to breathe without using her mouth or
nose. Sitting vigil every night, Avril learned to be hyperattentive to her
mother’s needs. Medical emergencies at all hours were common; when they
occurred, Adrian would ring a copper dinner bell and Avril would respond.
(One night her mother’s tracheal tube came out and Avril had to insert it
back through the hole in her neck, guided over the phone by a doctor. There
was blood everywhere.) All the while, Avril was keeping up with her
schoolwork and functioning on very little sleep.
Her mother died shortly before Avril’s 16th birthday. By then, with medical
bills piling up, they had left their apartment and were moving around the
city staying with different friends and relatives. Eventually, Avril moved
in with a boyfriend.
Following high school, Avril—drained emotionally and physically—deferred
college for a year and traveled to Japan. There, she enrolled in the Kodokan
Institute, Tokyo’s elite judo school, and became a brown belt.
CIA Director John Brennan turned to Haines for virtually every major
decision when he was the counterterrorism chief in the White House.
The next year, Haines started at the University of Chicago, where she
studied theoretical physics. The male-dominated department was not welcoming
to Haines. On her first day of class, a student questioned what she was
doing there. “This is honors physics,” he said in a tone that insinuated she
must have mistakenly entered the wrong classroom. Later during the semester,
a professor took her aside to suggest that her mind might not be suited to
physics. But she persevered and aced the class.
While in school, Haines took a job working for an auto mechanic in Hyde
Park. She’d always been remarkably adept mechanically. As a kid in New York,
she’d lugged home discarded TV sets and rewired their insides. In Chicago,
she helped rebuild Subaru engines and restored old car parts retrieved from
the auto graveyard.
During the summer between her sophomore and junior years, she was hit by a
car while riding her bike. It was a serious accident, the effects of which
cause her considerable pain to this day. While recuperating in the hospital
and later during grueling traction sessions, she eased her pain by turning
her mind to a dream she’d long harbored: buying an airplane and flying it to
The following summer, while back in New York, she enrolled in flying lessons
in Princeton, New Jersey. She fell in love with her flight instructor, David
Davighi, and not long after the course was over the couple traveled to
Florida to hunt for a plane. They found a 1961 twin-engine Cessna 310 that
needed work. Haines dove into rebuilding the plane’s aging avionics, and
soon they were winging their way to Bangor, Maine, their launching point for
After outfitting the plane with extended-range fuel tanks, the couple took
off late one summer afternoon, hoping to make it to England by the next day.
But while flying over the North Atlantic, they began to take on ice. Soon
they were losing altitude. The plane lost one engine, then the other.
Gliding 1,000 feet over the ominous Labrador Sea, they considered the
possibility of a daring water landing in between the waves. There was an
eerie silence and a sense of being alone in the world.
Then, through the fog, they saw land. It was the edge of the Newfoundland
coast, rocky and inhospitable. By now, one of the two engines had sputtered
back to life. Miraculously, they spotted a small, isolated airport where
they were able to land the plane. Socked in by bad weather, they were taken
in for a week by the delighted residents of a remote town.
Though Haines and Davighi never made it to Europe, the harrowing experience
had sealed their romance. Davighi followed Haines to Chicago for her last
year in college, and in 1992 the two settled on moving to Baltimore, where
he had found a job as a commercial aviator and she planned to pursue a
doctorate in physics at Johns Hopkins. But fate and Haines’s flair for new
challenges intervened once again. She and her husband learned about an old
bar in the then-transitional neighborhood of Fells Point, which had been
seized in a drug bust and was being auctioned off by the feds (the bar’s
upstairs had been a whorehouse). The opportunity stoked another one of
Haines’s dreams: ever since she befriended a curmudgeonly bookstore owner in
her New York neighborhood, she had wanted to open her own independent
bookstore and café.
They sold the plane, got a loan from the bank, and Haines threw herself into
the project—down to doing the electrical work and plumbing herself. The
store reflected her own deeply eclectic taste in books, including offbeat
editions from small, independent presses. (For a period, the store hosted
erotica and other literary readings.) Her hours—8 a.m. until 1 a.m., seven
days a week—were grueling. But it was a labor of love.
The bookstore—which was called Adrian’s Book Café, after her mother—was in a
rapidly gentrifying area, but one that was surrounded by tough neighborhoods
and housing projects. (The police-drama Homicide: Life on the Streets was
set there during the years that Haines owned the business.) Over time,
Haines got more involved in the local community, working to build bridges
between the upscale merchants and the residents of the projects. In the
meantime, the business was winning awards and succeeding financially. The
bank that made the original loan underwriting the bookstore urged Haynes to
expand it into a chain.
But now her interests were rapidly shifting to community organizing. And she
had begun to notice that the activists who knew best how to pull the levers
of reform were lawyers. So she gave up the bookstore and applied to law
Haines began Georgetown Law School in 1998. Befitting the pattern of her
peripatetic life, she soon moved in a new direction: she fell in love with
international law and human rights. After law school, she clerked for a
federal appellate judge and then in 2003 took a job as a lawyer in the State
Department legal adviser’s office. (She and David also married that year.)
Working in treaty affairs, Haines took an antiquarian’s interest in the
history of agreements between nation-states and quickly demonstrated a
facility for the intricacies of this area of international law.
Haines was sometimes summoned in the middle of the night to weigh in on
whether a suspected terrorist could be lawfully incinerated by a drone
As was so often the case throughout her career, Haines was noticed for both
her industriousness and her collegiality. Not long after arriving at the
Treaty Affairs Office, news broke that the Bush administration had entered
into secret agreements with a number of countries in Eastern Europe allowing
the CIA to set up black sites to hold and harshly interrogate suspected
terrorists. Some members of Congress realized the clandestine accords were
in violation of a law that required the State Department to notify the
legislature of all agreements with foreign countries, secret or not. Haines
and her colleagues discovered that, in fact, there were some 600 agreements
dating back many years that had never been reported. Congress was livid.
Haines plunged in to deal with the crisis, leading a team of lawyers in
attacking the backlog, a labor-intensive process that involved writing a
report for each agreement. They worked around the clock for weeks, pulling
multiple all-nighters to get the job done.
Haines would also work in the Legal Adviser’s Office of Political Military
Affairs, where she became steeped in the international laws of war. Then,
following, a two-year stint working as a lawyer for the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee under its then-chairman Joe Biden, she returned to State
as head of the Treaty Affairs Office. But it didn’t take long before the
White House noticed Haines’s mastery of international law. In 2011 she
became deputy counsel to the president for national-security affairs, a role
that placed her squarely at the center of law, security, and the
government’s most sensitive military and counterterrorism operations.
LIKE MOST good government lawyers, Haines doesn’t advertise her policy
preferences. She sees her job as laying out legally viable options and
letting the president and his principals choose the course of action. “Some
lawyers bring their personal perspectives, judgments, and ideologies into
the discussion,” says Jeh Johnson, the former general counsel for the
Defense Department, who interacted with her on dozens of operational and
policy questions. “Others are enablers. I believe Avril is an enabler.”
But that does not mean she lacks personal views. Haines is regarded by many
as a liberal pragmatist when it comes to national-security law. On the one
hand, she has tried not to unduly tie the hands of the operators who carry
out missions. And yet as the staunchest—and most authoritative—voice for the
relevance of international law in most national-security meetings, she is
not uncommonly an advocate of military restraint. Those who know her best
say that Haines is wary of what she sees as the inexorable momentum toward
more force. She is fond of the aphorism “Everything is a nail and we’re a
“Avril both has a deep respect for international law and the need to act in
ways that are supported by international norms but also for the importance
and efficacy of our counterterrorism operations,” says Rhodes, the deputy
national-security adviser. “She understands that one doesn’t have to be at
the expense of the other.”
So perhaps it is not surprising that the initiative that has occupied most
of her energy and intellect has been Obama’s effort to impose new rules and
standards for targeted killings. Known in bureaucratese as the “presidential
policy guidance,” it was a huge undertaking that took more than a year to
complete. Haines, through a massive feat of will, skillful lawyering, deft
diplomacy, and chronic sleep deprivation, brought it home. “She is probably
the one person other than the president who is most singularly responsible
for making that project happen,” says Johnson.
Day after day, Haines would sit through contentious sessions with officials
from the CIA, Pentagon, Justice Department, and other national-security
precincts throughout the government. She would take in all of the different
views of the various stakeholders, many of whom had pointedly different
interpretations of the law or divergent bureaucratic interests. Many
evenings around 9 p.m. she would end up in the basement office of John
Brennan, then the president’s counterterrorism adviser, who was overseeing
the initiative. After the two of them worked through the day’s list of
knotty legal and policy problems, she would head back to her office and
incorporate endless changes into the thick, highly classified document.
Sometimes, her husband would meet her for a quick dinner and then return her
to the White House, often after 11 p.m. Mostly, she would get by eating
Cheetos, Fig Newtons, and apple sauce, and downing copious amounts of Coke
or iced lattes. She would circulate new versions of the document
time-stamped as late as 1 or 2 in the morning. Over the course of the year,
Haines and her team worked through dozens of drafts. “It was extraordinary
persistence on her part,” says Harold Koh, the former State Department legal
adviser, who worked closely with Haines both at State and after she arrived
at the White House. “And it was stunningly good legal work.”
At one point, the entire initiative came close to foundering over one
disagreement. It concerned the personal involvement of Obama (and
potentially future presidents) in targeted-killing decisions. Since the
beginning of his administration, Obama had made the extraordinary choice to
personally sign off on lethal operations, known as “direct actions,” away
from conventional battlefields. But over time, the CIA and the military
began to chafe at the close White House involvement in their operations.
Meanwhile, some of Obama’s aides sought to insulate him from the specter of
the president having his finger on the trigger, particularly after stories
emerged about presidential “kill lists.” In one of the drafts of the
presidential guidance approved for circulation by the White House, the
president was taken out of the decision chain for individual strikes—and
kill authority was shifted to the CIA director or secretary of Defense.
She’s very unassuming and extraordinarily modest,’ says her boss. ‘But that
can be mistaken for weak.’
The change set off explosions throughout the national-security bureaucracy.
The State Department and Justice Department responded furiously, arguing
that it was imperative for the president to supervise such sensitive
missions. It was an epic interagency fight that went on secretly for weeks.
In the end, it fell largely to Haines, the onetime owner of an artsy
bookstore, to broker a compromise. She did just that, by patiently listening
to both sides, experimenting with different language, and gently prodding
the adversaries to find common ground. As the policy stands now, the
president decides whether a suspected terrorist can be targeted when the
agencies can’t agree on a resolution. The president must also approve lethal
counterterrorism operations in a new country. Finally, the president
periodically will review the government’s kill list for high-value targets.
Haines was able to get buy-in from all sides and, remarkably, all were able
to claim bureaucratic and policy success. “She pulled it back from the
abyss,” says one source who was deeply involved in the process.
LOOKING AHEAD to her new role at the CIA, Haines’s supporters—and there are
legions—say not to underestimate her. “She’s very unassuming and
extraordinarily modest,” says Kathryn Ruemmler, the White House counsel and
Haines’s current boss. “But that can be mistaken for weak. She has fortitude
and a real ability to push back.” More than one White House official cited
Haines’s interaction with Tom Donilon, the national-security adviser, as
evidence of her inner steel. Donilon, known as someone who is difficult to
work for, has a way of badgering subordinates with questions to move a
discussion forward. When Haines got the Donilon treatment at one
“principals” meeting, she stood her ground, relying on the calm repetition
of her well-considered arguments. It is those qualities, White House
officials say, that have also led her to push back against a covert
operation or take a drone strike off the table.
Haines brought home Obama’s effort to impose new rules and standards for
The full parameters of her new position are not entirely clear. At the very
least, Haines will be expected to exercise all of the powers of the director
when he is absent. That means overseeing the Directorate of Intelligence,
which analyzes intel and produces finished reports for policymakers, as well
as the National Clandestine Service—the spies who steal secrets, run covert
operations, and (at least for the time being) carry out drone strikes.
“Moving from a legal position to an operational role can be a challenging
transition,” says Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism
Center and a former top Justice Department official. “But Avril has both the
intellectual firepower and the collegial approach to succeed in her new
Historically, the deputy job often varies based on whoever is CIA director.
And one thing that is known is that John Brennan’s trust in Haines is
implicit. Brennan, who has an affinity for lawyers and their logical way of
thinking, turned to Haines for virtually every major decision when he was
the counterterrorism chief in the White House. The two developed a strong
professional chemistry, working endless hours together on the new
Her principal nemesis is likely to be a chain-smoking, abrasive terrorist
killer known only as ‘Roger.’
At the CIA, that policy—which calls for an end to the CIA’s drone
program—will undoubtedly constitute Haines’s biggest challenge. She will be
assuming power at the CIA as a principal author of a policy intended to
dismantle the agency’s most prized counterterrorism program. In implementing
this policy, she will be up against seasoned bureaucrats—spies who have
spent their careers learning how to run covert operations against policies
and campaigns to discredit leaders. “It’s these guys’ stock and trade,” says
one senior intelligence official. “And they do it internally.”
Even her biggest supporters say that Haines will have to find her leadership
voice as she takes on the CIA’s deeply entrenched culture. “Avril is so
modest she doesn’t quite understand her power and how well people think of
her,” says one senior administration official. “She needs to understand that
it’s OK to walk into a room and expect people to pay attention.”
The CIA says Haines will not be viewed as a complete outsider at the agency.
“She already is known to many here as someone who has gone to great lengths
to help the CIA achieve its objectives,” says CIA spokesman Dean Boyd. “For
those who don’t know her, we’re confident that she will be received
extremely well, given her humility, intellect, integrity, and judgment.”
Nevertheless, she’s bound to face adversaries. Her principal nemesis is
likely to be a chain-smoking, abrasive terrorist killer known only as
“Roger,” the first name of his cover identity. Roger, chief of the CIA’s
counterterrorism center, has presided over the drone program for years and
is said to be a ferocious infighter who jealously guards his fiefdom.
Intelligence officials say he is nothing short of contemptuous of lawyers
and White House officials whose risk-averse ways, as he sees it, will make
it harder to do his job: killing bad guys. And Roger is a survivor. One of
the longest continually serving counterterrorism officials in the
government, he has headed the CTC since 2006.
Roger, and others of his ilk, will sorely test the proposition held by
Haines’s supporters that through hard work and decency she can win over even
the greatest skeptics. But unbeknownst to so many of her colleagues, she has
something besides mere work ethic and a nice demeanor going for her: the
lawyer whom Rhodes calls “an international woman of mystery” has a life
story that arguably has prepared her for anything.
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