National intelligence director on US security

Avril Haines, the Biden administration’s director of national intelligence, urged students to consider a government career.

Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, oversees a team in charge of the President’s daily intelligence briefing, which brings together information from across the CIA, FBI and other agencies. (Jordan Renville / Daily Trojan)

Avril Haines wants students to know about the career possibilities of security and intelligence.

The director of national intelligence to the Biden administration gave students an inside look into her thought process at a talk following the career fair Thursday afternoon at Tutor Campus Center. The Center for International Studies, the Intelligence Community Centers for Academic Excellence and the Center for the Political Future co-sponsored the event, which drew in an array of audiences ranging from international relations majors to NROTC midshipmen. The talk aimed to educate students about the potential of a career path in security or intelligence.

Haines dove right into international policy, opening her talk by painting a picture of what went on behind the scenes in the month leading up to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“We were effectively doing our jobs collecting intelligence, starting to put together a picture of how the Russians appeared to be planning the potential of a large-scale invasion of Ukraine,” Haines said.

At first, Haines and her team were skeptical about their intel and wondered whether Putin would actually follow through with an invasion as their findings suggested.

“We got to a point where we really did think this was serious,” Haines said. “Then we sort of hit the next layer, which is the policy community going, ‘Are we sure?’”

Eventually, both the President and the intelligence community became convinced they needed to begin conversations with American allies and partners about the potential of Russia’s plans. These discussions posed two central questions: whether the United States would be able to discourage Putin from carrying out his plan and, if not, what the country’s appropriate response would be. 

The intelligence community was concerned that giving the potential invasion any attention by sharing information or warning other countries could escalate the situation. Ultimately, President Biden decided that they had to share information with their allies so they could start planning.

Haines’ team is in charge of the President’s daily intelligence briefing, which brings together intelligence from across the CIA, FBI and other relevant agencies in addition to a wealth of open-sourced external material.

Haines’ job is often chaotic, but she loves the people she works alongside, Haines said. “I am constantly learning, and that makes me feel alive.” (Jordan Renville / Daily Trojan)

“There is so much information in open source. It is absolutely astounding how many experts you got,” Haines said. “Part of what is challenging is actually prioritizing: ‘What am I going to read?’ ‘What is most likely to get me the information that I need and that I can count on?’”

One of the most important values for the intelligence community is producing factual information free from illegitimate biases, the biggest of which is policy. 

“When you’re talking to the President, what you really want to say is how great the policy is that you’ve been pushing,” Haines said. “You’re so invested in your work, that it is really hard to step back and say it’s actually not going so great. That’s part of what we do: we deliver the bad news.”

While discussing her work’s impact on the public, Haines said it’s important for the intelligence community to value transparency and authenticity surrounding potential threats as much as possible. 

“I see foreign policy and national security issues as being things that affect everyday Americans,” Haines said. “We are surveilling, we have people’s information. How do we treat it? How do you know that we’re being responsible with that information? … We are not going to be very good at our jobs if we don’t have public trust.”

While the majority of her talk focused on key moments from her career or daily job responsibilities, Haines also called USC students to action, encouraging audience members to consider a job in intelligence. Haines said she recognizes that parts of her job aren’t too appealing to Gen Z, such as a commitment to the same line of work for multiple decades and leaving one’s cell phone in the car to ensure security.

“It’s awesome leaving your cell phone in the car,” Haines said to laughter from the audience. 

As Haines hopes the mission of serving the public is what brings people into the job, she said one of the largest challenges is when professionals move between government and private practices.

“If you have somebody who is in the private sector who knows biotech, or something like that, and they are coming into government and they are somebody that wants to go back into industry … you don’t want them to come into government and make decisions about procurement or acquisition issues that are related to their sector,” Haines said.

Nino Murotori, a freshman majoring in international relations, said he was impressed by how much time and precision went into Haines’ profession.

“All the stuff that you have to balance, all the people that you have to get to know and all the information you process is truly monumental,” Murotori said. “It really takes someone with a lot of grit and with a lot of control to be able to handle all of that at once.”

Although her profession is challenging and often chaotic, Haines has a motivator that drives her work each day.

“The people, 100%, are amazing,” Haines said. “People do not tend to join for fame or fortune … They really tend to want to do things that are worthwhile. It is one of the most intellectually interesting environments. I am constantly learning, and that makes me feel alive.”

Matt Stevens, associate director of the Center for International Studies, helped organize the event. While his department mainly focuses on research faculty and PhD students, it’s trying to incorporate more programming catered to an undergraduate perspective, he said.

“We see it as a pathway to bring them into the field and to start imagining an interest in research,” Stevens said.

“We tend to serve those on the more academic career path,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to highlight the other career trajector[ies] of public service, policy, government, intelligence.”

Lauren Petroff, a senior majoring in political science, said she was surprised with the authenticity and intimacy of Haines’ talk, given that her profession is centered around maintaining confidential information.

“National intelligence, you think spy and CIA, but [Haines] was really open about everything,” Petroff said. “There’s such a facade of mystery when it comes to national intelligence … It really is something that anyone can go into.”

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