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Director of national intelligence discusses career, national security risks

On Friday, director of national intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines appeared at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center to discuss her career, the role of the intelligence community and global threats to the United States.

Haines appeared alongside Amy McAuliffe ‘90, assistant director of the CIA’s Weapons and Counterproliferation Mission Center, in a discussion titled “The U.S. Intelligence Community: Assessing Global Threats in Service to Country.”

The discussion was part of the Notre Dame International Security Center’s (NDISC) Jack Kelly and Gail Weiss Lecture Series. Kelly, a Notre Dame alum with 28 years of active and reserve duty as a U.S. Army officer, introduced Haines. 

Haines and McAuliffe on stage at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Friday. / Credit: Isa Sheikh | The Observer

“Years ago, there was a movie. Liam Neeson played a retired intelligence officer. When asked who he was, he said, ‘I have a particular set of skills, skills I’ve acquired for a long career, skills that make people like me very scary for people like you.’ Well, I don’t know how scary the director makes people, but she does have a special set of skills,” Kelly said.

He recounted Haines’s biography, from being raised on the Upper West Side to moving to Japan to study judo at a dojo before studying physics at the University of Chicago. Haines also spent her teenage years caring for her mother, who died when she was 15 years old.

Kelly recounted the story of how Haines built a plane with her husband, attempting a flight across the Atlantic and succeeding. Haines then opened a neighborhood bookstore in Baltimore, which “became a forum where people came and taught and shared ideas,” Kelly said.

Haines next began a career as a lawyer, going to Georgetown Law and ultimately becoming an attorney advisor at the State Department. She was then appointed to national security positions in the Obama administration, including as deputy director of the CIA and deputy national security advisor.

Haines, who was appointed by President Biden as the seventh DNI and the first woman in that position, serves a key role in the administration.

“Every morning, a car pulls down West Executive Drive at the White House. And this woman gets out and goes into the West Wing and every day, she and her briefers go to the first customer, the most important customer of national intelligence in the world, the president, and present to him the daily presidential brief. And that is how the president starts his day because this is the person who holds the secrets, the nightmares that you and I fear,” Kelly said.

Haines began by discussing the intelligence community, inviting students to consider careers in the field. 

“As somebody who has been in different parts of [the intelligence community], it is truly one of the most extraordinary places to work and yet, it’s also one of the most challenging places to figure out,” she said. “I think as a student, as somebody who’s thinking about a career at some point, this gives us an opportunity to frankly talk to you a little bit about it, but also answer some of your questions. So my hope is as you think things through, you will do so.”

Haines discussed how the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) was born out of 9/11 and the government’s response to the perceived heightened security risk. She summarized the office’s role in four priorities.

Firstly, serving as the principal intelligence advisor to the president, as well as senior national security officials. 

“What my organization tries to do is really to pull together what the elements are doing and to facilitate their work so that we can get intelligence before [the president] and key folks who are having to make decisions, right intelligence that they can use in a form that allows them to use it to make a decision at a moment when they need it,” Haines said.

Next, Haines discussed the imperative to coordinate across the intelligence agencies and integrate findings.

Thirdly, Haines discussed setting priorities by managing the budget for the intelligence community. Finally, she said she works to facilitate strategic discussions about the direction of American intelligence.

Discussing the challenge of briefing officials and the press without allowing personal proclivities to bias the intelligence, Haines said that, in her experience as a lawyer in the State Department, credibility was key. She said that was achieved by leaving conclusions about policy to those responsible.

“I had to stick to my brief right. In other words, you sort of provide the legal views without providing the policy. What I’ve learned in that position over the years was that my credibility was attached to my ability to do that,” she said. “And it is equally true in my experience in the intelligence community, that you really do have to be, in my view, quite careful about providing our analysis.”

Haines discussed the war in Ukraine, including handling skepticism towards intelligence in the leadup to Putin’s invasion.

“I remember being in the office with the boss, the president, and he said, ‘Okay, you know, [national security adviser] Jake [Sullivan], [secretary of state] Tony [Blinken], you guys gotta get out there and start talking to our allies.’ Because if this was gonna happen, we’ve got to actually figure out with them what we’re going to do in response and whether or not there’s any opportunity to deter … and then they come back and they said, ‘Folks are really skeptical,’” Haines said. “And so [the president] turned to us and said ‘You know, you got to start sharing, you have to help them understand what you’re seeing and why.’”

Haines discussed the role of intelligence and national security, particularly in formulating the annual threat assessment. 

“I think one of the most interesting things over the last few decades in my view is that we are expanding the definition of what national security is in all kinds of ways. When you look, for example, at our annual threat assessment, you will see global health safety, food technology, environmental degradation and climate change. All of these things are represented,” she said. “Climate change has been identified as an urgent national security priority by the president of the United States.”

Haines and McAuliffe took questions from NDISC students, ranging from the challenges of potential politicization of intelligence to tensions with China and intelligence reform. 

One question concerned the ODNI’s ongoing review of documents seized at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and whether the office might become mired in political controversy like the FBI.

“In every scenario in which we are doing our job in association with issues that are at the center of politics and partisan debate, there is obviously the risk of getting caught out in the stands,” Haines said. “What I have found is that the best antidote to it in a sense is truly to just be as focused as one can be on exactly what your job is and not paying attention to some of the craziness around it … Whether or not I’m worried that it’ll happen, I can’t let that affect the decisions that we make, right?”

Contact Isa Sheikh at isheikh@nd.edu.