Biden Pick to Lead Spy Agencies Played Key Role in Drone Strike Program Under Obama

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s pick for the director of national intelligence, Avril D. Haines, is a politically moderate national security professional who is likely to win confirmation in a sharply divided Senate but encounter hard criticisms from the left.

The choice of Ms. Haines, who would be the first woman to serve as the nation’s top intelligence official, prompted concern from some human rights groups, which questioned her role as the architect of the Obama administration’s program targeting terrorists with drones, some of which killed civilians. But her defenders argue that Ms. Haines helped put in place safeguards on the use of force and greater transparency for the drone program.

Ms. Haines, an expert in international law, has worked for the Obama and Bush administrations in jobs for the National Security Council, the State Department and the C.I.A. She also has one of the most interesting unclassified backgrounds of any top intelligence pick. She is a trained physicist, a brown belt in judo, a pilot who nearly crashed into the North Atlantic with her future husband and a former cafe and bookstore owner who helped revitalize Baltimore as a community activist.

“It’s clear that she has eclectic interests,” said John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. chief who picked her to be the agency’s deputy director. “Even, you know, bohemian.”

If confirmed, Ms. Haines, 51, will have to rebuild an intelligence community that was openly excoriated by President Trump over its assessment that Russia had interfered on his behalf in the 2016 election and to depoliticize the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

While intelligence chiefs have traditionally been nonpartisan and focused on delivering facts, the past two directors of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe and Richard Grenell, who served on an acting basis, were fierce partisan defenders of Mr. Trump.

Ms. Haines co-wrote an article in Foreign Policy this year that raised concerns about the politicization of the intelligence agencies under the Trump administration.

In the Obama White House, Ms. Haines was a national security legal adviser beginning in 2010, a position that helps oversee covert C.I.A. programs, including the drone strikes, and classified Pentagon operations. She then served as a deputy C.I.A. director from 2013 to 2015, after which she returned to the White House as the deputy national security adviser, leading the committee of agency deputies that developed policy options for Mr. Obama in the final years of his administration.

Early in her government career, Ms. Haines developed a reputation for her intellect and for starting work early in the day and continuing late into the night, with only a small break for her husband to deliver dinner.

“She is just a workhorse,” said John B. Bellinger III, a top Bush administration lawyer who promoted Ms. Haines to a senior legal position at the State Department. “She works about 23 hours a day.”

In 2007, while detailed from the State Department to Congress, Ms. Haines worked as a lawyer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Mr. Biden was the chairman, an early chance for her to work closely with the future president-elect.

“She will be Biden’s principal adviser on intelligence issues,” Mr. Bellinger said. “That she has a longstanding relationship of trust with him will make her enormously influential.”

A close study of Ms. Haines’s early life might not suggest that she was bound for the top intelligence job. She attended the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, studying physics and working as an auto mechanic. She also began taking flying lessons from an instructor she would later marry, David Davighi.

A profile of Ms. Haines in Newsweek in 2013 described how Ms. Haines and Mr. Davighi bought a twin-engine plane and began rebuilding it with hopes of flying it from Maine to England. They made it as far as Atlantic Canada when the engines gave out, forcing an emergency landing in Labrador.

After graduating from college, Ms. Haines moved with Mr. Davighi to Baltimore, where they eventually bought a bar that had been seized by the government in a drug raid and remade it into an independent bookstore and cafe.

Years later, when Ms. Haines was named a deputy director of the C.I.A., Washington journalists had fun reporting on the occasional erotic literature nights the bookstore hosted in the mid-1990s. In one session attended by a Baltimore Sun reporter, Ms. Haines kicked off the reading with an Anne Rice fairy tale and then gave the reporter a spirited defense of the “spontaneity, twists and turns” of erotic fiction.

Ownership of the bookstore led to community organizing work, which led Ms. Haines to Georgetown University Law Center, where she discovered international legal work.

While she is a former C.I.A. deputy director, Ms. Haines does not have a long career of working directly for intelligence agencies. Still, she has deep experience overseeing covert programs, leading White House Situation Room discussions of national security problems and translating intelligence issues for political leaders in the White House.

Ms. Haines had been selected to return to the State Department, chosen for the legal adviser’s job, when Mr. Brennan made her his deputy after he was confirmed to lead the C.I.A. in 2013. Mr. Brennan, a career C.I.A. officer, said he wanted an outsider to help him.

“She is not an ideologue by any means,” he said. “She is probably going to be criticized by people at different ends of the spectrum, but she has a very practical and pragmatic view.”

Some human rights organizations expressed worries that Mr. Biden’s choice of Ms. Haines signaled a return to the Obama administration’s national security policies rather than exploring more liberal alternatives. Progressive groups long argued that the Obama administration’s counterterrorism programs amounted to extrajudicial killings and were illegal under international law.

“My concerns about her are more my concerns about the Obama administration,” said Andrea J. Prasow, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “With these cabinet picks, we are returning to the previous administration instead of making bold and forward-leaning picks.”

In her Senate confirmation, Ms. Haines is likely to face questions about the drone program and how under her watch the C.I.A. worked with lawmakers investigating the agency’s interrogation program. At the time, senators accused the C.I.A. of breaking into computers they were using to conduct their oversight, setting off a bitter feud between lawmakers and the agency.

Some progressives have also been upset with Ms. Haines’s decision to support the nomination of Gina Haspel as Mr. Trump’s second C.I.A. director. Ms. Haspel’s work on the C.I.A. torture program, progressives said, should have disqualified her.

Other liberals are concerned that Ms. Haines is not someone to make big changes in national security and counterterrorism programs.

Ms. Prasow said that despite her disagreements with Ms. Haines, she had deep respect for her. While some government officials make a show of listening, Ms. Haines not only engaged with human rights groups but tried to incorporate the criticism into her policy work.

“She is one of the nicest people I have ever met, and probably the nicest person I’ve ever met who worked for the U.S. government,” Ms. Prasow said.

Veterans of the Obama administration said Ms. Haines’s real skill was listening to and getting buy-in from stakeholders, a critical component to making lasting changes to national security policy. In an interview with The Daily Beast last summer, Ms. Haines said a focus on the process of government was what was needed.

“I can understand people wondering whether I am someone who can help to promote big change where it is needed,” she said. “And for what it is worth, I believe I’m exactly the right person for making such change where appropriate.”