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The Proxy War Over a Top Biden Adviser

Win McNamee

The rise of a former deputy CIA director on Joe Biden’s transition team is drawing furious objection from the left—to the shock of her colleagues in the Obama administration, who believe Avril Haines’ record in government ought to endear her to progressives.

In late June, the Biden campaign announced that Haines, an attorney who served as deputy director of the CIA from 2013 to 2015, will helm the foreign policy and national security aspects of a potential Biden transition team.

To activists, security experts, congressional aides who are more left than liberal—as well as mainstream human rights campaigners and at least one ex-senator—Haines’ elevation is worrisome or unacceptable. She approved an “accountability board” that spared CIA personnel reprisal for spying on the Senate’s torture investigators, and was part of the team that redacted their landmark report. After the administration ended, Haines supported Gina Haspel for CIA director, someone directly implicated in CIA torture, a decision that remains raw amongst progressive activists. Until late June, she consulted for the Trump-favorite data firm Palantir, which emerged from the CIA.

<div class="inline-image__credit"> Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty </div>

Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty

“This is a pretty ominous signal about what is to come” in a Biden administration, said a Senate staffer who works on national security issues. “To have the deputy CIA director touted for her record in advancing human rights and respect for the rule of law I don’t think can be adequately squared with not only her record but her deliberate choices of advocacy.”  

To Obama administration alumni who are more liberal than left, the antipathy for Haines is stunning. Haines was perhaps the leading voice inside the administration for restricting the drone campaign. She was “a voice of restraint on all counterterrorism issues,” said Harold Koh, the former State Department legal adviser. As deputy national security adviser, she was principally responsible for increasing refugee admissions against massive nativist headwinds. Haines, her old colleagues say, kept pressing to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo Bay when others conceded defeat. 

“When someone doesn’t get everything they seek inside the U.S. government, critics can say ‘that person is legitimating policy by improving it,’” said Samantha Power, the former ambassador to the United Nations, “but the fact of the matter is that more innocent civilians would have died and a far wider set of targets would have been pursued without the changes that she secured.”

The divide between liberal and left perceptions of Haines highlights a crossroads for the future of Democratic national security policy and for a prospective Biden presidency. Liberals tend to view Obama’s maintenance of the war on terror, however circumscribed, as unfortunate but understandable. A reinvigorated left views it as an epic, discrediting mistake. Behind its dissatisfaction with Haines is a fear that Biden will restore the Obama legacy, rather than expand its horizons to, among other things, rolling back the counterterrorism apparatus. 

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>US President Barack Obama speaks before a meeting with the National Security Council (NSC) on February 25, 2016 at the State Department in Washington, DC. From left: National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen, US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines, and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes.</p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty </div>

US President Barack Obama speaks before a meeting with the National Security Council (NSC) on February 25, 2016 at the State Department in Washington, DC. From left: National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen, US Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines, and Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes.


“As a general matter, I am somebody who believes in good process and I try to keep myself out of the spotlight. I can understand people wondering whether I am someone who can help to promote big change where it is needed, and for what it is worth, I believe I’m exactly the right person for making such change where appropriate,” Haines told The Daily Beast in a rare interview. 

“Being someone who values good process doesn’t mean you don’t seek big shifts in policy—it just means that the change you seek, once achieved, is far more likely to be sustainable. And in a moment like the one we face today, with a president as unpredictable and disdainful of rational, evidence-driven decision-making as President Trump is, it wouldn’t be bad to have someone working to promote good process,” she continued. 

A sign of her values, she added, came from her current work at Columbia University’s Columbia World Projects to “bring research and scholarship to bear on fundamental challenges we are facing around the world, such as inequality, access to energy, climate change, and maternal health.”

Haines is not part of Biden’s foreign-policy inner circle, like former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken; ex-Pentagon policy official Brian McKeon; Jake Sullivan, Biden’s vice-presidential national security adviser; and Carlyn Reichel, his vice-presidential foreign-policy speechwriter. The campaign says she won’t have a leading role staffing the administration, despite a perception to the contrary on the left. Instead, she’ll convert Biden’s campaign pledges on those subjects into policies for the first year of his presidency. Many expect her to get a senior position in the administration. 

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“The transition operation will be focused on responsibly developing the readiness of a potential new administration to serve the American people,” said Ted Kaufman, the former senator in charge of Biden’s transition. 

Interviews with nine former Obama officials, as well as admirers in the human rights community, echoed with paeans to Haines’ warmth, diligence and commitment to the law. As State Department attorney during the late Bush administration, Haines unearthed and shepherded through the Senate 90 languishing treaties. “Without Avril, the Bush administration would not have had this very good record on treaties,” said John Bellinger, Koh’s predecessor as State Department legal adviser. “I can’t think of a bad thing to say about Avril, I just think she’s a superstar.” 

A detail to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee put her on the radar of Biden, then the chairman. By late 2010, she transitioned to the White House, where she was deputy legal adviser before ascending to the legal adviser’s job the next year. There she chaired the interagency lawyers’ group that would convene to consider the “targeted killing” enterprise—that is, drone strikes. She came to see it as operating without meaningful constraint and quickly partnered with White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, the CIA veteran. 

<div class="inline-image__credit"> David Hume Kennerly/Getty </div>

David Hume Kennerly/Getty

“We wanted to make sure that the counterterrorism program and any type of lethal strikes that we might take would be very sharply caverned within a framework that made certain stipulations [and] criteria before any strike was taken,” said Brennan. “We all approached it from our various portfolios in a manner that limited the number of times that strikes would be authorized. Avril and I bore the scars of a lot of the pushback that we received from counterterrorism proponents that wanted to have more latitude in carrying out strikes.”

Koh, a contributor to the process, remembered Haines as a force for curbing the drones. “A lot of people characterize themselves as voices of restraint, but she really was. ‘That’s illegal, we’re not gonna do that,’ she would say. She showed guts,” Koh recalled.

Haines remembered pressing for a process that would ensure drone strikes would occur “only in the rarest circumstances, when it’s absolutely necessary.”

The result was Obama’s 2013 policy-planning guidance. It required “near certainty” that both someone targeted “is in fact the lawful target”—a standard that did not previously exist—and that civilians would not be killed. The drone attacks diminished. In 2010, the high-water mark of the bombardment, the CIA launched 122 strikes in Pakistan alone. After the guidance was issued, there were 61 Pakistan strikes in Obama’s entire second term. But while the drone attacks diminished, human rights groups, as well as relatives and survivors of drone strikes, disputed that civilians had stopped dying from the lethal activities in significant numbers. And while the drones were placed under restrictions, they persisted. 

Haines supported restraint. She did not, she said, support abolition, which she did not consider “realistic.” Her former colleagues say that the only one who could have decided on abolition was Obama. 

“The drone program existed and wasn’t going away. President Obama saw the risks of abuse in the program and tasked Avril with making it law-abiding,” said Power. “Avril sought to put a lethal instrument of U.S. power into a legal framework, to minimize the risk of civilian casualties, and to give a program shrouded in secrecy far more transparency.”

Andrea Prasow, the acting Washington director of Human Rights Watch, has resisted the war on terror since its inception. She credited Haines with increasing transparency around the drone strikes—though, in 2016, the Obama administration released a civilian death tally that human rights groups considered a cynical undercount—and said Haines did not share the “just-trust-us approach, ‘we’re the good guys’” that she saw from other Obama officials. At the same time, Prasow continued, “I don’t know how you reconcile the drone program with anyone who believes in human rights and international law.”

Haines said she “understood the concern expressed by some that the process that was put in place legitimized the program, but if you come to the conclusion that the program will remain in place, having a rigorous process and a clear, transparent legal framework that promotes accountability is critical, especially one we can live with as other countries begin to have access to such weapons.”

Brennan, Obama’s second-term CIA director, took Haines, an outsider and a lawyer, to Langley as his deputy in 2013, “to challenge many conventional wisdom or thinking or practices within CIA.” Asked what Haines’ legacy at the agency was, Brennan called her a “tremendous mentor and role model to young officers, especially to women,” as well as aiding with a structural overhaul unveiled in 2015 and ensuring CIA lawyers understood Obama’s counterterrorism restrictions. A different former senior CIA official, however, immediately answered, “she had that shit-burger to deal with”—meaning the Senate intelligence committee’s torture investigation. 

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Led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the years-long investigation found that the CIA torture was vastly more sadistic than known; useless for counterterrorism; and enveloped in an edifice of lies so extensive as to constitute a disinformation campaign against Congress and the public. The CIA, resisting those conclusions, took the fateful step of secretly accessing Senate investigators’ work product on a shared private network—enraging Feinstein—and requested the Justice Department prosecute lead investigator Daniel Jones. A CIA inspector general report said the agency personnel involved in the spying exhibited a “lack of candor” about the episode. 

Haines played two roles over the report. First, she was part of the CIA team, supported by the White House, that spent months negotiating with the Senate over how much of the report to declassify. It infuriated Feinstein and her allies, who saw the purpose of the exercise as concealing the report’s findings. “My recollection was that Avril was pushing as vigorously as she could for minimal redaction,” said Denis McDonough, Obama’s White House chief of staff. Those recollections are not shared by others in the process, who remember Haines pressing to obscure the Senate narrative. Haines would not comment about it for this story.

“It was not my sense that her goal was to cover up torture,” said Human Rights Watch’s Prasow. “Was that the outcome? Sure.” 

Second, Brennan appointed an “accountability board” to assess the intrusion. Its findings clawed back the CIA inspector general’s assessment, found no reason to discipline those who spied on their Senate overseers, and criticized the Senate. Brennan recused himself, leaving Haines to accept the board’s conclusions, which she did in one of her last acts before returning to the White House in 2015 as deputy national security adviser. 

“I found the Board’s review and conclusions to be persuasive and consequently, I accepted their recommendations.  I have no trouble believing that people disagreed with the Board’s conclusions or, for that matter, my acceptance of them,” Haines said. “Both Senate staff and CIA personnel felt passionate about the situation.  Personnel on the agency side felt wronged, like the Senate staff had gone after them, and the people on the Senate side felt like the agency folks had spied on them. I honestly think both sides have a misimpression of the other side’s intent and I understand that others will not have come to the same conclusion.  But again this has nothing to do with the RDI [Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation] report or the program and what I think about torture, which I believe is immoral and unacceptable.”

Mark Udall was a Democratic senator from Colorado on the intelligence committee when it finished the torture report. Asked about Haines’ role with Biden, Udall said: “If our country is going to turn the page on the dark chapter of our history that was the CIA’s torture program, we need to stop nominating and confirming individuals who led this terrible program and helped cover it up. I trust Joe Biden to ensure his administration’s intelligence agencies understand the grievous mistakes the CIA committed through its torture program and to only nominate intelligence officials who are dedicated to changing the culture at the CIA.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO)</p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> Doug Pensinger/Getty </div>

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO)

Doug Pensinger/Getty

Haines returned to the White House for what her colleagues consider perhaps her finest hour. The Syrian civil war and the so-called Islamic State prompted a dire refugee exodus. It also prompted a nativist backlash on both sides of the Atlantic. Republican governors, conflating ISIS with those fleeing them, refused to resettle refugees. Haines took charge of expanding the admissions. Ronnie Newman, a former NSC official, remembered Haines leveraging her CIA pedigree against intransigent security agencies. “She was able to say convincingly and persuasively not only we could live up to our humanitarian commitments but also keep the nation safe,” Newman said. “There were life and death consequences for people and that was what was great about working with her. Every refugee counted.” 

Haines’ work raised refugee admissions from 70,000 to 85,000. As the Obama administration wound down in fall 2016, she got the admissions totals raised again, to 110,000 for fiscal 2017. In a speech to Human Rights First, Haines framed embracing refugees as a counterterrorism measure, since “when we support and care for refugees, we contradict [extremists’] message.” Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s chief foreign-policy aides, reflected, “Not a single human being besides Barack Obama did more than Avril to get more refugees into this country.” 

A record like that stunned Democrats when, in 2018, Haines joined a chorus of former intelligence officials supporting Gina Haspel for CIA director. To anti-torture activists, it was nauseating to permit someone who played a leading role in torture to run the CIA—and the inevitable consequence of suppressing the Senate report. As Democratic opposition to her nomination crested, the White House crowed over the ex-intelligence officials’ support. 

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For many on the left, this moment defines Haines. “Even in the Trump era, with the supposed ‘#Resistance’ rallying cry of congressional Democrats, that [Haines] went on the record and endorsed Haspel speaks to the depths of a commitment to a similarly lawless enterprise,” said the Senate staffer. Added the leader of a progressive nonprofit that works on national security issues who requested anonymity out of concern for professional reprisal, “Being where any decent person should be on a few issues doesn’t cancel out an endorsement of torturers.” Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, said, “Her support was used by the administration to legitimize the nomination, and that’s a black mark against Haines’ record.”

Haines would not comment for this story about her support of Haspel. Sources familiar with her thinking on the episode said that she had come to see Haspel as an independent voice within CIA and thought that of anyone Trump would nominate to the position, Haspel would be best equipped to push back against inappropriate uses of the agency. In an April co-authored piece for Foreign Policy, Haines observed that Trump’s long-predicted politicization of the intelligence agencies has manifested, something many of Haspel supporters backed her to prevent. 

After the Obama administration ended, Haines took several academic and consulting positions. One of them was with Palantir, the data firm allied with Trump that, among other things, aided ICE in rounding up undocumented immigrants. According to Palantir, Haines consulted on promoting diversity within the company’s hiring from July 5, 2017 to June 23, shortly after her position with the Biden transition was announced. As The Intercept first reported, Palantir quickly disappeared from her Brookings Institution biography, smacking of a whitewash. Brookings told The Daily Beast that Haines’ office had requested an update scrubbed of non-active affiliations broader than Palantir. A Biden transition said Haines removed several affiliations from her bio, not just Palantir, after ending those affiliations as part of her onboarding to the transition.

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>Peter Thiel, co-founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies Inc.</p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg/Getty </div>

Peter Thiel, co-founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies Inc.

Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg/Getty

“The vast majority of my work for Palantir was related to diversity and inclusion, with a particular focus on gender.  For the most part, this involved visiting with different offices, talking to those in the workforce about their experiences, occasionally mentoring some of the remarkable young women who work there and suggesting ways in which they might promote diversity and inclusion,” she said.  “This is an issue I feel passionate about and on which we need to do better not just at the CIA but across the national security workforce in government.”  

Haines’ left critics consider her Palantir work egregious, swampy and a capstone for her career. “It’s interesting to do diversity for a company founded by Peter Thiel,” who has mused that womens’ political empowerment is a negative for “capitalist democracy,” observed Jeff Hauser of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“Those who engage in revolving-door for-profit national security firms like Palantir, there’s something redolent of the corruption the progressive left is fighting against,” said the Senate staffer. “We should absolutely be able to expect that a Democratic national security leader will both be humane as relates to refugees—and also not cover up for torture, promote torturers, and take paychecks from some of the world’s most malevolent corporations,” the nonprofit leader added. 

More broadly, the concerns with Haines on the left underscore an exhaustion over Obama’s cautious embrace of the war on terror and a fear that Biden will continue it. Constraining the war on terror instead of dismantling it did nothing to confront the post-9/11 nativist security paranoia that Trump rode to power. Once he did, all the work Haines did to circumscribe the drone strikes vanished as Trump intensified the bombardment and returned it to the shadows. The 110,000-refugee ceiling she raised crashed to its foundations. All that remains is the war on terror. 

“When we look at the continuities between Bush and Obama, we should be concerned that we’re going to return in a Biden administration to a kind of status quo. A return to transparency and legality is hardly enough,” observed Nikhil Pal Singh of New York University, author of Race and America’s Long War. “That’s just handing the baton back and forth between two types of approaches that are deeply flawed, unjust and provide no durable security framework.”

The leftmost Obama alumni want the Biden team to listen to the dissatisfaction and translate it into policy. “The main takeaway from this controversy is that the Biden campaign ought to reach out to progressives and hear them out on matters of foreign policy as much as it does on domestic social and economic matters,” said Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group and Haines’ former colleague on the NSC. 

Haines said that’s what she wants as well. 

“Yes, I’m absolutely open to it. There’s no question. What the Bush administration called the global war on terror and what the Obama Administration called the conflict with al Qaeda and associated forces, cannot simply exist forever on automatic,” she told The Daily Beast. “To the extent the concern would be ‘Is she somebody who represents just a return to the policies of the Obama administration, simply promoting constraint but not actually changing the landscape,’ that’s not a concern with me. We have to rethink things.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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