Why Obama chose woman with no CIA experience for No. 2 CIA job

Avril Haines will be the first woman to be second in command at the CIA, but critics point not to her gender but her lack of CIA experience. Her choice suggests Obama wants a close ally.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Michael Morell, seen on Capitol Hill in this file photo, is resigning as deputy director of the CIA and will be replaced by Avril Haines on Aug. 9.

Plucking from a collection of high-powered female lawyers serving the White House, President Obama has nominated Avril Haines as the next deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Ms. Haines is the first woman to hold the job. She replaces Michael Morell, who announced his retirement after more than three decades in the CIA to spend time with family. She’s an unexpected pick in that she hasn’t any background with the agency. In fact, Haines was slated just a couple months ago to move to the State Department as its legal adviser.

How unusual is it for a lawyer – and one without spook experience – to fill such a powerful agency job?

One former senior CIA official tells the Monitor that her nomination has prompted surprise among his former colleagues, not due to Haines’s gender, of course, but because she is a relative unknown in the community. He says the law is “not a typical track” for the deputy director job and that she’ll likely “face some skepticism among the ranks until she can prove that she has learned the intricacies of the organization and doesn’t automatically default to an overly legalistic, risk averse, view of everything.”

“She has the disadvantage of following Michael Morell who is much admired across the board,” the official adds. “Thirty-three years of experience being replaced by none. She faces quite an uphill climb.”

CIA Director John Brennan provided his full support for Haines, however, suggesting “she knows more about covert action than anyone in the US government outside of the CIA.”

"She has participated in virtually every Deputies and Principals Committee meeting over the past two years and chairs the Lawyers' Group that reviews the agency's most sensitive programs," he added, in a statement reported by UPI.

But the former senior CIA official says Haines’s experience doesn’t add up to the job. “Sitting in National Security Council meetings on covert action is nice, but being deputy CIA director involves much, much more than covert action, and she has no known experience in those things,” he says. [Editor's note: The original version of this story gave the wrong name for the National Security Council.]

Forget about the women angle, or the lawyer piece, or, for that matter, Haines’s lack of agency experience, says Philip Mudd, former deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. With Mr. Brennan and Haines in the top two jobs, the CIA has a direct pipeline to the White House.

“I think this underscores the relevance of the CIA in the post-9/11 era,” Mudd says. “You want people with firepower there – and that’s political firepower. Because the White House needs that agency in ways they’ve never needed it before.”

Mudd says the CIA is a flat organization – it’s not military-oriented and it’s not hierarchical.

“The key question people on the inside are going to ask is, ‘Is she going to listen?’ ” Mudd says. “It’s a proud organization. They’re going to sniff her. ‘Is she going to ask us what we think?’ ”

At the White House, Haines served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy counsel to the president for national security affairs. According to her White House bio, the Georgetown University Law Center graduate formerly worked for the State Department as assistant legal adviser for treaty affairs and in the office of the legal adviser. And she served as deputy chief counsel for the majority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago.

Some are suggesting the Haines appointment is less about elevating her than ousting Mr. Morell for his role in extracting from official administration talking points references to the CIA’s warnings that terrorists could attack the Benghazi diplomatic compound.

The Benghazi controversy continues to dog the Obama administration politically.

Morell issued a statement pushing back on that speculation.

“Whenever someone involved in the rough and tumble of Washington decides to move on, there is speculation in various quarters about the ‘real reason,’” he said. “But when I say that it is time for my family, nothing could be more real than that.”

Morell’s last day is Aug. 9. Haines is not subject to Senate confirmation in the new post.

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