Let’s say you’re the newly appointed head of the CIA and you’re plotting a strategy to wrangle the famously unruly work force. Now imagine your deputy, a widely-admired CIA veteran, announces he’s going to step down after 33 years of hard service. What do you do?
You could replace him from within the Agency ranks—that’s a surefire crowd pleaser. Or you could tap an experienced former intelligence officer who is known and respected at Langley and has gone on to success elsewhere. Many DCI’s have taken that route and succeeded.
Or you could do what President Barack Obama’s new CIA chief John Brennan just did: go for a virtually unknown person who has no intelligence community experience but who does have the two qualifications guaranteed to make Agency hands uneasy: “White House official” and “lawyer.”
On Wednesday, the White House announced that Obama would appoint Avril Haines to be the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. She has been the top lawyer at the National Security Council, and previously was a lawyer at the State Department’s Office of Treaty Affairs, and at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
Haines, who has a physics degree as well as a JD, is by all accounts very smart. And she has deep experience in the oversight of covert operations thanks to her time as NSC’s top lawyer, a position that means she’s included in key meetings of national security officials and their deputies.
But that won’t necessarily help her when she arrives at the CIA, which does a lot more than run secret missions. The agency is wary above all of being burned by political appointees and lawyers. The fear is rooted in four decades of scandals, from Nixon to Clinton to George W. Bush, in which the CIA feels it was hung out to dry by politicians, often when lawyers changed their minds about what was legal.
The White House announcement has been met with surprise among Agency veterans, and Haines skeptics are already piping up. “The appointment of a White House lawyer with zero CIA experience won’t be met with huge optimism,” says one former senior CIA official. “She may be well known inside the White House and around the Deputies Committee, but she’s a complete unknown elsewhere.”
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Haines’ appointment is what it says about Brennan. Brennan spent 25 years at the CIA and must have known Haines would be greeted coolly. Picking her shows confidence, and may be more about his outside game than his inside one. “He is not someone to change a pick just to appeal to the masses,” says the former senior CIA official, “Perhaps it says he thinks he and the other careerists there have the Agency covered and where he needs help is on the Deputies Committee” where CIA has to negotiate with other cabinet agencies.