December 6, 2017

Avril Haines served the Obama administration as deputy national security advisor and, before that, CIA deputy director. Now she’s a fellow at Columbia Law School and newly appointed senior researcher advisor to Columbia World Projects.

On November 29, Haines visited SIPA for a special talk about U.S. security and emerging threats. She spoke about her time in office and addressed other topics including the Trump administration’s dealings with North Korea and Iran nuclear deal. Dean Merit E Janow and Professor Richard K. Betts were on hand to facilitate the conversation.

One of the biggest challenges in working for the National Security Council and CIA, Haines said, was prioritizing her time.

“With too many things coming in, too many crises, constantly trying to figure out what is the most important thing that you need to be spending your time on and also trying to ensure that the urgent doesn’t crowd out the important,” she said. “Actually, not just dealing with the crisis of the moment but also thinking about dealing with the strategic issues and making sure you are not going down rabbit holes.”

As she moved from role to role at different institutions — Haines’s time in Washington also included service in the state department and Senate — the nature of the challenges she faced evolved.

Haines highlighted the value of the intelligence community to the president in critical situations, suggesting that the intelligence community has traditionally been a more transparent channel of information and analysis than other traditional sources.

“The intelligence community doesn’t have a dog in the fight in the policy discussion; it is not intended to promote or advocate for a particular policy result in a sense,” she said. “The theory is that that analysis is coming from analysts who are really just focused on trying to explain what’s happening.

Haines said she saw firsthand how critical intelligence analysis was in decision-making. The agencies give the president an opportunity to “double check on the analysis that’s being done on the policy side,” she added, addlowing him to “make a more deliberative decision.”

In a tense political climate, Haines expressed some concern about the new administration’s policies vis-à-vis security but said the believes in the strong institutional protections that exist.

“In terms of, are we prepared for the challenges that we are facing today, I really do hope so,” she said. “I am constantly impressed by the terrific institutions that make up the government and the people that are a part of them on a daily basis are people who are genuinely passionate about doing what they think is right for the U.S. government.”

Haines was asked about President Trump’s hyperbolic rhetoric in response to provocations by North Korea and his decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal.

In North Korea, Haines said, the administration seemed to be engaging in the kind of “potential escalation” that seemed “unnecessary as an additional layer to the problem.”

To denuclearize the Korean peninsula, she said, the United States needs to encourage the process of a phased negotiation while reassuring allies and partners in the process.

“I feel a key piece of the policy, which I think this administration is doing differently, is that it is utterly crucial to coordinate all of your activities with all of your allies and coordinators,” she said. “That’s China, but that’s also your allies, meaning South Korea and Japan, so being in lockstep with them is critical.”

Haines also suggested alternatives that should be taken into consideration — like setting up a contingency plan in the event of a collapse, to reassure China.

Haines said the Trump administration’s decertification of the Iran deal would set a bad precedent for any negotiations with North Korea.

“One of the worst things we can do is to walk away from the deal to give up so much of their nuclear program,” she said. “To walk away from that even when they are complying with it sends the wrong message to North Korea when you are trying to negotiate with them.”

— Neha Sharma MPA ’18