For someone poised to become the ultimate insider as the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines spent her formative years more as a hipster and an outsider.
An only child raised on the West Side of New York, she spent her teenage years helping care for her ailing mother, who died when Haines was 15. As soon as she finished high school, Haines set out on a series of adventures. She began with a stint at an elite judo academy in Japan, earning a brown belt.
Her next stop was the University of Chicago, where she studied theoretical physics, a highly competitive department dominated by men.
She also loved rebuilding cars and airplanes, and eventually learned to fly.
“She bought a used Cessna and rebuilt the avionics herself and tried to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and crash-landed near the Newfoundland coast,” said David Priess, a former CIA officer who has written extensively about the agency’s leaders.
The aborted trip wasn’t a total disaster. Her co-pilot and flight instructor, David Davighi, later became her husband, and they launched an independent bookstore and cafe in a gritty part of Baltimore in the 1990s.
When President-elect Joe Biden introduced Haines last week as the first woman nominated as director of national intelligence, the top job in U.S. intelligence, he referred to Haines’ eclectic past.
“Brilliant, humble. Can talk literature and theoretical physics, fixing cars, flying planes, running a bookstore-cafe, all in a single conversation, because she’s done all that,” Biden said.
Haines, now 51, was in her early 30s by the time she graduated from Georgetown Law School and began her rapid ascent in government.
“She has serious credentials,” said Rollie Flynn, who served three decades at the CIA and is a big supporter of Haines. “She is a really smart person, a person with serious horsepower and a nice person. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of drama out of her. Just a serious professional.”
Haines worked on international treaties at the State Department. She then joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she got to know the committee chairman — Biden, then a senator from Delaware.
When Biden became President Barack Obama’s vice president, Haines followed him to the White House, working on the National Security Council.
She was so highly regarded that in 2013, Obama named her to the No. 2 job at the CIA, though she had never worked at the spy agency. She was the first woman to hold the title of deputy director, though Gina Haspel became CIA director in 2018.
“I think all of us probably had a bit of a question mark because [Haines] didn’t have a background in the agency,” said Jeanne Tisinger, a senior CIA official when Haines was appointed.
That changed quickly.
“I became a fan within weeks,” Tisinger said.
Flynn, who was a CIA station chief abroad and held senior roles at agency headquarters, says it’s still a big deal when a woman is named to a top job in national security.
“Having myself come up in the days when there weren’t very many women in leadership positions, to me it’s very significant,” said Flynn, now the president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “There are so many women who for years have been capable of holding those jobs. And so I think to actually see that come to fruition is a terrific thing.”
Haines does have critics, such as Daniel Jones.
Jones was the chief investigator on the Senate Intelligence Committee back in 2014 when CIA staffers were accused of breaking into the committee’s computers.
The CIA’s own inspector general criticized the actions of several CIA employees in his finding. But Haines led a review board that said no one at the agency should be disciplined. Jones says this case deserves another look when Haines has a Senate confirmation hearing.
“I think she really lacked the leadership in this case, and I think the Senate needs to push her on it,” Jones says. “I think we need to learn more about that accountability board review and her role in it.”
If Haines is confirmed, she’ll be taking over an intelligence community that’s consistently been on the receiving end of criticism from President Trump.
In contrast, Biden has had good ties with the national security establishment and first worked with Haines more than a decade ago. That longstanding relationship could be key for someone who’s expected to part of the president’s daily national security briefing.
Haines kept a low profile in her previous government positions, but she did make brief comments when Biden nominated her.
“Mr. President-elect, you know I’ve never shied away from speaking truth to power,” she said. “I accept this nomination knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise … even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult, and I assure you, there will be those times.”
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.