The Just Security Podcast

A Conversation with Avril Haines the Director of National Intelligence of the United States

March 01, 2024 Just Security Episode 57
A Conversation with Avril Haines the Director of National Intelligence of the United States
The Just Security Podcast
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The Just Security Podcast
A Conversation with Avril Haines the Director of National Intelligence of the United States
Mar 01, 2024 Episode 57
Just Security

On Feb. 29, 2024, Just Security welcomed the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, to NYU School of Law for an event in celebration of Just Security’s 10th anniversary year.

Just Security’s Co-Editors-in-Chief, Tess Bridgeman and Ryan Goodman, introduced Director Haines who delivered remarks regarding strategic declassification, the role of law, and transparency in the intelligence community. Director Haines then joined NYU School of Law Dean Troy McKenzie for a question and answer fireside chat. 

Show Notes: 

Show Notes Transcript

On Feb. 29, 2024, Just Security welcomed the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, to NYU School of Law for an event in celebration of Just Security’s 10th anniversary year.

Just Security’s Co-Editors-in-Chief, Tess Bridgeman and Ryan Goodman, introduced Director Haines who delivered remarks regarding strategic declassification, the role of law, and transparency in the intelligence community. Director Haines then joined NYU School of Law Dean Troy McKenzie for a question and answer fireside chat. 

Show Notes: 

Paras Shah: Hello and welcome to a special episode of the Just Security podcast. I’m your host, Paras Shah. 

On February 29, 2024, Just Security welcomed the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, to NYU School of Law for an event in celebration of Just Security’s 10th anniversary.

Just Security’s Co-Editors-in-Chief, Tess Bridgeman and Ryan Goodman, introduced Director Haines, who delivered remarks regarding strategic declassification, the role of law, and transparency in the intelligence community. Director Haines then joined NYU School of Law Dean Troy McKenzie for a question-and-answer fireside chat. 

Tess Bridgeman: Hello, and welcome. We are Tess Bridgman and Ryan Goodman, Co-Editors-in-Chief of Just Security, and we are thrilled to welcome Director of National Intelligence of Avril Hanes. Thank you so much for being here with us today to celebrate Just Security's tenth anniversary year. We're delighted to see so many friends and colleagues in the audience and thank all of you for what you do to support our work in so many different ways.

Ryan Goodman: So, as those of you in the room will know, Just Security aims to promote principled and pragmatic solutions to problems that are confronting decision makers in the United States and around the world. We try to do this through rigorous analysis of issues of national security, democracy, foreign policy, and rights, and our goal is to serve as a source and a resource for policymakers, journalists and the public in an era in which trusted voices and reliable information are especially vital. 

We're grateful for our exceptional hard-working staff, richly experienced and diverse board of editors and advisory board, our leading expert guest authors, and, of course, our readers for making Just Security a forum to be trusted on a wide range of issues confronting our country and the international community. The ecosystem of stakeholders in Just Security’s work have supported our growth and reach, enabling articles and resources that we publish to make a real and hopefully lasting contribution. We're also grateful, especially today, marking the 10-year anniversary of Just Security, to NYU Law School and to our institutional home at the Reiss Center on Law Security, which is led by our phenomenal Executive Director Rachel Goldbrenner. We also wanted to say a special thank you to the many people who worked to make today's event possible, at the Reiss Center, our staff, at the law school, and including, especially, Marianna Kozak, for whom without this it would not have been possible. So just thank you to everybody for being here, and for being here in the sense of having brought us to this point.

Tess: We want to, of course, extend a special thanks to Director Haines, whose principled leadership on so many of the national security issues that we work on at Just Security is inspiring for all of us. She's served as a mentor to many in the Just Security community, and she is overall an extraordinary leader who so many of us look up to for her thoughtfulness, her intelligence, her unwavering dedication to serving the public, and of course, her humanity. We are also grateful to Dean Troy McKenzie here at NYU Law School who himself is a leading scholar as well as a public servant, having served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General at DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. And with that, Dean Mackenzie, we’ll turn it over to you to introduce our guest. Thank you. 

Troy McKenzie: Well, thank you, and welcome, everyone. Welcome to this fantastic occasion, because we are gathering both to celebrate Just Security and to hear from Director Haines. This is a real milestone, 10 years of Just Security. Just Security, I think we all know, has provided an unparalleled platform for thoughtful, critical and diverse perspectives on issues of paramount importance both to lawyers, to academics, and more broadly, to policymakers in the U.S. and around the world.  

The analysis that Just Security provides is regularly part of our national dialogue in the very highest circles, and the contributions that Just Security attracts are referenced across a spectrum of decision-making points, mediums, and also in legal scholarship, congressional reports, and testimonies, and to have been able to achieve this in only 10 years is truly remarkable. So, I want to take this moment to congratulate Just Security, the Reiss Center on Law and Security, which has served as a home for Just Security. I think all of these achievements exemplify the commitment that we have made at NYU, both to supporting scholarship, as well as informed dialogue and discussion on issues around national security rights, the protection of democracy and the law. And really, Just Security is an example of why NYU is a leading destination for national security studies in the legal academy. 

I also want to welcome Director Haines, who is a true renaissance woman. She brings a wealth of experience and expertise in the field of national security. She is the seventh Senate-confirmed Director of National Intelligence, and she is also the first female head of the U.S. intelligence community. In the Obama administration, she was Assistant to the President, Principle Deputy National Security Advisor. She also played a role as Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She has demonstrated not only extraordinary capability, but steadfast commitment to serving this country with honor and distinction, and consistent with the rule of law. 

I said that she is a renaissance woman. She actually began her journey into the federal government and public service over the last two decades, and has been throughout all three branches of government. She is a graduate, a former Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins, where she worked in the Applied Physics Laboratory. She was also a research scholar at Columbia University. She then found her way to Georgetown, where she received her law degree after having received an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Chicago. So, her background combines a number of really remarkable talents. With a background spanning academia, government service, and now the intelligence community, Director Haines really does epitomize the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration and dedication to the greater good. And again, I think that is fully consistent with what we have tried to build here at NYU. 

She is of the law. She acts in policy and intelligence circles with integrity, and I have no doubt that she will bring amazing insights to us here today. So, I want to reiterate what a privilege it is for us to have her here. So, without any further ado, please join me in welcoming Director Haines.

Troy: So, this is a fireside chat — without fire. Once again, thank you. I have, you know, only about three or four hours of questions for you, but at some point, we'll get dragged off the stage. 

I wanted to pick up on a few themes of your remarks, and I actually wanted to read a quote. This is Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence in the Pentagon Papers case, and I first confronted this when I was at OLC, and it has always struck me as an important statement about the way in which national security intelligence information works, flows, and the challenges in that world. 

So, he wrote, “In the governmental structure created by our Constitution, the executive is endowed with enormous power in the two related areas of national defense and international relations. This power, largely unchecked by the legislative and judicial branches, has been pressed to the very hilt since the advent of the nuclear missile age. For better or for worse, the simple fact is that a President of the United States possesses vastly greater constitutional independence in these two vital areas of power than, does say, a prime minister of a country with a parliamentary form of government. In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power, in the areas of national defense and international iffairs, may lie in an enlightened citizenry, in an informed and critical public opinion, which alone can help here protect the value of democratic government.” 

And I wanted to start with that, because, of course, in the world where you operate, the checks, the balances, are so often internal, and to the extent they're external, they come with transparency. You mentioned transparency, but of course, transparency is not always possible in every single aspect of the work you do. So, I wanted to ask you about guarding against misuse of intelligence and surveillance authorities, and if you could perhaps comment on the types of internal or inter-branch checks and balances that you think are important?

Avril: Yeah, it's such a huge topic. So, maybe I'll say a few things and then please dig in where you think is most useful. But I think the one thing that maybe I'd add to Potter’s statement in the context of our work is, I do believe an informed citizenship and citizenry is a critical check in effect on these powers. But for us, in particular, in the intelligence community, because so much of the work that we do is in secret, Congress is a huge piece of the puzzle, right? And one of the things that I find particularly challenging is, so I think, if you're, if you've been in the executive branch, and particularly if you've worked in the intelligence community or in national security, one of the things it — and I target like the last seven years or so in particular — what you will see is that the intelligence community, we share a lot with Congress. Like, it's more so than other typical agencies and departments. We're sending up congressional notifications on a daily basis, sometimes hourly basis, on various things that we're focused on, and there's an extraordinary kind of work. 

Now, that's important and good and useful, and I do think part of the system, but it is definitely not sufficient. Like, I think that is part of the piece that, that I've tried to think about and understand, and so to your point, in part, my view on this is that we do need to continue doing that with Congress, right? And, you know, basically, provide them with everything that we possibly can through the intelligence committees as we're working things through. But we have to proactively think about the contours of our work, right, and produce frameworks that help people understand what we do and what we don't do. And those frameworks are frameworks that are important not just in terms of statutory frameworks, which you already have access to, right, but rather, there's a part of it that is, for example, producing decisions of the FISC court, you know, going through and declassifying or, you know, taking out, redacting only what has to be classified, but exposing as much of that as possible so that you can see how the court is interpreting the law in these circumstances, and what kind of direction they're giving us, right? Those types of things. 

There’re also frameworks that relate to where we don't have a court, because in a lot of national security, the work is done without a judicial check in, you know, certain areas. And so instead, what you have is interpretations by the executive branch of how to apply the law in certain areas, and so, questions of the degree to which you can then expose that without necessarily providing the details of an operation that's being conducted underneath that framework. 

And so, that's the space that I've long seen the value of occupying, but it is not without its challenges. And part of the issue is, how do you make it a regular course kind of thing, as opposed to the president or some event creating a scenario that forces that kind of issue? And so, that has been the thing that I found, you know, that we've been trying to construct more of, creating mechanisms that actually lift up and promote, you know, nominate things for frameworks to be exposed. 

The challenge, I would say, is in things like the commercially available information, that is a good example. Honestly, it takes a really long time, and that's one of the challenges that I think we end up having in government. Like we work through it, and then we have to work through, okay, what are the implications if you expose X, Y, and Z? And how does that affect the work? And so on, and then you get it through a big process. And that, I think, is one of the challenges that comes out in this space.

But it is, it's fundamental to, it's our legitimacy, it's trust, it is also a check, it is all of those things. And the thing about that quote that I find so interesting, too, and I've thought a lot about the Pentagon Papers in the moment that that was, but over the decades, it's only gotten harder, right? I mean, it's only gotten more important, because we all recognize that national security and foreign policy is increasingly critical to the everyday citizen in a variety of different ways. It is also the case that it isn't, you know, you want Congress to be the check, and you want the American public to feel confident in Congress, but the American public often do not feel confident in Congress. And, there's a challenge of trying to ensure that you're getting out as much as you can, so that there's a better debate and discussion. So, I'm sorry, I went on too long. That's, yeah. 

Troy: No, no, no, no. Again, we could, you know, there was a lot to dig in there. You talked about having frameworks and principles and trying to build those out, and where appropriate, greater transparency, not, you know, sort of limiting redaction of information and the like.  

I wanted to ask you, and again, I realize that, you know, this may be sensitive, so I'll just ask it in a more generic way. I was struck how certainly in the last several years, in this administration in particular, there has been a sense that both in terms of declassification and in terms of giving public airing to intelligence information, more of it was coming out. I think, in particular, what sparked this in my mind is the run up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which it seemed extraordinary at the time, but also seemed as though it was not an ad hoc, from the hip action. It seemed to be something that had been deliberated on and thought about. To the extent you can comment, can you talk sort of generally about the move towards putting out into the public debate information that perhaps a generation ago or even 10 years ago the intelligence committee might have been very reluctant to kind of let go of?

Avril: Yeah, it's, I think, talking about it in the context of Russia-Ukraine is useful because there's been a lot that's been made public already about sort of the process. And I tend to tell it in a story that points to a moment, which I will describe, but it is absolutely true that this was a very sort of deliberate planning process, essentially, even as it developed to, though we were learning new things and iterating and trying to understand how it was working and where it was and so on, and there were aspects of it too, that I think, you know, we are continuing to learn lessons from and think about how they apply in other spaces. 

So, to get to the story, I think, you know, we were obviously pulling together intelligence that indicated that Russia was really considering this large-scale invasion. And I'll tell you, I mean, for us, it was… The first sort of scenario is one where the analysts are writing this upright, and many within the intelligence community were like, “Does that really make sense? Is that really, like is this, you know, are you sure that this is something that's being contemplated?” Because, you know, you sort of look at the situation and you think well that, like, why exactly would Putin do that? Aren’t there some very significant downsides to going down this road, right? And as we became convinced within the intelligence community, and we started to produce this in, you know, the President's daily brief and things like that, to the boss — got a lot of skepticism from the policy community, who were like, yeah, like, can you show us more? Where's your homework on this? Like, how do we? And, you know, so we continued to talk through it. 

And I remember the President saying, you know, he basically said, “Well, we've got to start talking to partners and allies about this and start thinking about if this happens, what do we do, right? Like, and how do we deal with the situation?” And so, you know, our Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan, and you know, variety folks like Lloyd, you know, our Secretary of Defense, et cetera, so they start to have those conversations. And we had a moment where I remember them saying, “Well, our allies are pretty skeptical about this, like, they're not really sure this is going to happen.” And that was the moment I remember him turning, but there were sort of a variety of moments like this, right? Like, where he was like, “You have got to get out there and start sharing this. Like, we have got to talk to allies through the intelligence community to try to help them understand what we're seeing, and to provide this.” 

And so, that was sort of a first iteration, from my perspective, of then us setting up, in effect, an apparatus for trying to do this. And as we were thinking this through, of course, like NATO, the EU, these are the crucial international organizations that we would have to work with, that would take action, and so then you start to think about how do you get this out to them on a regular beat, how do we do this? And through the sharing, of course, as you know, it's not as if we don't share with these allies, and partners on a regular basis, but as you intensify on a particular issue, you learn a lot from those discussions, right? Like, they come back, and they say, “Well, I'm not sure about this piece. But we've got a piece of intelligence that tells us this.” And, you know, it helps you put the picture together in a way that gives you greater confidence about what's happening. And so that was a part of it. 

But then the second part of it was very much in the context of countering disinformation, right? We knew that Russia was looking to create a pretext for the invasion, and the effort to try to counter that was another sort of iteration of this that was more about not, we call it like downgrading to share with allies and partners in effect, but actually declassifying or trying to do that. And of course, and you know, this is also a paradigm that repeats itself in so many different spaces. As you're doing that, you sure as hell don't want to lose the access that is giving you the insight, right? So, you've got to figure out a way to really think through how you do this in a way that does not actually, you know, tank your access effectively. And, yeah.

Troy: So how then, in the next iteration, do you resist when, you know, let's say, there's a press, or informed observers say, “Why don't you sharing the information, like you shared in the run up to the Ukraine War? You know, you did it then, you should do it now. And if you're not doing it now, could you tell us why not?” Have you ever thought through what that might look like, because those demands are going to come? 

Avril: Yeah. So, it's interesting, because there's sort of a variety of dynamics that enter into play in the kinds of scenarios that you're talking about. First of all, there's a view, right, that to the extent that we are capable of sharing information more broadly with our partners and allies, so it might be that it's classified, that we can't unclassified, right? But we can do more to share with partners and allies, and you might ask, “Well, if we can do more to share with partners and allies, why wouldn't you?” 

And part of the challenge is, really, resources. Like, you’re writing on a variety of things for the President of the United States. You know, you only have so many analysts there doing that. You have to think through, like, “Okay, if I make it for release for a variety of folks, then there has to be a second review, there's different things that you have to do.” So, there is a kind of a resource constraint that you've got on doing a variety of things in this area. 

But there was so much clear value in doing what we did, right, in the context of Russia-Ukraine, and in other spaces. I mean, we focus a lot on Russia-Ukraine, because it's the most public example we have. So, just recognize that there are other, obviously, things that we do this on, and it matters. And I think, increasingly, we see in the National Security Strategy demonstrate this, right? It puts partners and allies and our capacity to work in coalitions is absolutely fundamental and a priority to our national security. So, we are increasingly being pushed to provide that, essentially, intelligence sharing basis for that discussion to make it a better discussion. 

And so, to your point, I think the first answer is, we should do more sharing, in other words, right? From the policy community, the view is, “Let's do more sharing, and let's try to make sure that we're doing it in the areas that are most important, from our perspective, to set up for a better national security conversation.” That's sort of point one. 

But point two is, if you've got reporters or other folks who are doing that, it's again, like if it can be unclassified, it should be unclassified. And so, that is, you know, we are trying to do more in that space, which leads to things like the Transparency Initiative in the NIC. Again, it is, you're trying to promote as much as we can to actually push things out so that you can begin to see what it is that we're saying, as I indicated, both because I think it's important for basically educating the public conversation, but also because we get reactions, and people tell us we're wrong. And they say, “You haven't considered this.” And it's really useful for us to hear it. It makes our work better. So, as we're doing that, I think the response is also helping to validate, in a sense, the value of that to the intelligence community.  

Last thing I'll just note is that one of the challenges is, there's a cultural shift that we're sort of in that is, you know, a kind of a long-standing trend. But it is an important one to recognize a little bit. Like, our job, our mission in life in the intelligence community is to provide information to decision makers, policymakers and operators, right, so that they can make better decisions. That there really is, like, if you had to boil it down, that's really what we do. And that is what should be the priority, right? So, there's a challenge sometimes within the thing of like, you're asking me to do a lot of other things that are not our sort of priority one, right? Like, so we do have to think through how we do it in a way that allows us to still do the primary mission that we're focused on.

Troy: So, we are in a world in which we have competitors, adversaries, many of which are authoritarian regimes. They're not worried about transparency. They're not worried about checks and balances. So, let me play devil's advocate a little bit. My heart sings when I hear these types of initiatives — transparency, thinking seriously about putting in place frameworks for greater sharing of information when appropriate. Isn't there a risk of degrading our own ability to compete in an extraordinarily hostile environment to give the kind of information that decision makers will need within our government? Have you ever thought about that response to that concern, that these are all the types of initiatives one would expect in a democratic republic, but our competitors are not democratic republics, and we've got to keep that in mind?

Avril: Yeah. So, here's sort of a version of how I think about this, and I would welcome your thoughts on this, obviously, to try. So, I think of the sort of implementation of our values and the constraints that we submit ourselves to in the context of a democracy as part of our strength, and I'll give you some answer that it's not unadulterated. So, I want to, I'll come back to it too. 

But, part of it is that our most important asset in the intelligence community are the people that work there. It is an extraordinary group of talented, really, just folks that are not seeking fame and fortune, because you're not going to get that in the intelligence community, and people who really want to apply themselves to do something useful and often could be paid significantly more in the private sector and variety of things. And yet, they come to work in the intelligence community, or in the government more broadly. You see this in a variety of different spaces. 

Part of what attracts them, I think, and I certainly see this through my own interactions with the workforce, is the capacity to do something for their society, for, you know, that is consistent with their values, essentially, for what they believe we stand for. And I think that our application of our values in the context of our work helps us to keep that extraordinarily talented group of people focused on their work. That's one. 

Two is, it is one of the things that we see sometimes with authoritarian intelligence services is they get used as a political tool. They're not focused on what's best for the country. they're focused on what's best for that political leader’s future or their capacity to do things. That is a drain of resources, in my view, on what is it do, but it's also means that they're not actually helping their leaders make better decisions for their country, right? And, that is really a lot of what we set ourselves up for to do. 

Number three. So much of our strength is derived from our alliances. We recognize that today more than ever, I think, in a variety of ways. We are allied with many countries who share our values. Often, over the many years of my, when I was a civil servant in the government or other things like that, you would have conversations with allies and partners where in sharing intelligence, they want to make sure that what you're doing with their intelligence is consistent with their law, and that when you're giving them intelligence, they want to tell you what they're doing with it in ways that allow you to feel consistent with your laws, so that you will continue to share intelligence. That's crucial. And that is part of the discussion that we have. So, when we're talking about new developments in privacy and civil liberties laws, for example, we're talking to our, you know, allied services to make sure that we're doing it in a way that will not actually become a barrier to some of our sharing. So that is a part of, I think, the strength.  

Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't times when the intelligence community comes up and says, “If you put this restraint on us — like, we understand that you think we should, I don't know, retain information for only X number of years, for example, this is a pretty classic one, right — and because, you know, we want to, from a policy perspective, we're thinking through, how do we manage the data that the government has in an appropriate way to protect for privacy and civil liberties issues, we may raise an issue and say, like, here's the impact of that. There may be some national security, like, we could have gotten some value out of that data, if we have it for longer. There's a variety of things where we've seen that it's been valuable under those circumstances.” So, we have that debate. But I think that's an entirely appropriate debate to have. That gives the policymakers and our leaders an opportunity to say, “Okay, I get it, there might be some advantage to national security. But I think the advantage for us as a country, because we're complying with a certain set of rules and a certain way is to our advantage in other respects. And, I've decided that the balancing act is here, and this is where we're going to cut it off.” And, I think that's a perfectly appropriate thing for us to do in all circumstance. 

Troy: So, speaking of democracy and shared values, we have a presidential election coming up this year. There is the specter of foreign interference. There's the specter of emerging technologies, artificial intelligence being used to seed and spread disinformation in the campaign season. How can we prepare for that, prevent that, react to that, and what's the role of the intelligence community in the potential fight that we will have on that battleground?

Avril: Yeah, honestly, the landscape has gotten much more complicated over the last several years, even as I would say, that the government's capacity to deal with it has also gotten much better. When, for me, looking back at 2015 and you know, just how challenging it was for us to basically work with local and state election authorities and others to really help them see what the threat was, and so on, was just much harder than it is today, and a lot of what we do, in the context of our work in the intelligence community, is really support the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, who are on the front lines of this issue, and who have really established those kinds of networks so that they can provide it, and to ensure that we're providing to them — through notification frameworks, a variety of other things that we do — basically, the information about disinformation that we see that may be attributed to a foreign actor, things like that. 

And then we also produce analysis that helps us to inform Congress, first and foremost, and our political leadership of the threats that we see, and then we provide an unclassified version of that that is public, that helps people to see what it is that the threat is from foreign actors in the context of elections. And honestly, I mean, the thing that strikes me about this is, the more educated all of us can become on these issues and understand what is happening out there and sort of take as much responsibility as possible for dealing with it and actually helping others be educated about it, the better. It is, with, you know, tools coming out of generative AI, other things like that, it's just going to become much harder to manage this issue over time, and we're seeing this internationally. I mean, it's pretty extraordinary to watch some of the deep fakes in the context of elections in a variety of scenarios.

Troy: So, I'm going to ask you a huge question. 

Avril: These have been really small, I feel like.  

Troy: These are bite sized morsels. 

Avril: These are. Yeah, exactly. 

Troy: When I think we look out at the adversaries, other countries who have relations with the U.S. that crossed the spectrum from, you know, quite hostile to engaged but also with the prospect of conflict, and I wanted to identify three of those and to ask you how you, how the intelligence community sees them, differences among them, and the ways in which we are likely to respond. Iran, Russia, China. Iran, obviously, with groups backed by Iran that have recently escalated in the Middle East, in ways that we have responded to. Russia, we've already talked about the Ukraine War, we talked about election interference. And China, a main trading partner, but also a country where in the commercial space, military space, there is the prospect for conflict. Is there anything you can say, you know, in a minute, that can sort of shed light on how we approach these three very, very different countries hat, but in different ways, we have found ourselves confronting? 

Avril: Yeah, okay. Well, let me — maybe the way to do this is just to say, here is part of the challenge of the current landscape that we've got, and then I'll get to the three and try to do this as accurately and surely as possible. I know, you're going to have to grade me on this at this point. 

We're at a moment, where, I mean, I always feel like there's, you know, probably, this could be said for a few years, but where we're, our threat landscape is increasingly complex and interconnected, where we're dealing with sort of accelerating strategic competition between major powers, right, which is where the China-Russia piece comes in. We are dealing with increasingly intense and unpredictable transnational challenges that intersect with the state actor challenges, and we've got sort of multiple regional conflicts that have far reaching effects. And on top of that, you put technology, environmental changes, some of the economic strains that we have around the world, and what it makes for is a scenario in which it's both — the sort of level of instability for a variety of issues is quite high, and our capacity to forecast —which is, of course, what we're supposed to be doing, so many scenarios — is also very challenging. And so, as you go through each of these scenarios, I'll pull out some differences between them that relate to some of that, right?

Like, so, I'll take your last first, right? China is a critical priority for us because it is so fundamentally important to our future, and the trajectory that the United States has vis-a-vis China and our capacity to both counter aggression, but also to cooperate and collaborate where we can, in our mutual interest, to find a way to ultimately peacefully coexist and promote, you know, broader prosperity, is fundamental. It is a very long term, obviously, picture and goal, and one where part of the issue for us is ensuring that we keep our eye on the ball, which is to say that it's not as often the urgent threat the way the Middle East and counterterrorism can be and things like that. And so, the capacity to maintain focus and understanding, building out expertise so that we're able to give decision makers a better understanding of the landscape and so on, is crucial. And that's sort of how I think about, like, that is where we need to invest. We have to make sure that we are as focused as we need to be on that. 

Then the second, to Russia. You know, so often Russia and China are lumped together, and yet they are such different national security issues. And for Russia, you know, in so many ways the invasion of Ukraine has really kind of accelerated a decline for Russia that I think makes them also increasingly dangerous in many ways. It is, when you have less to lose, you're willing to take more risk, in effect, to achieve your goals. And so as we watch that, and try to help policymakers, again, understand what's happening, it's a dynamic, evolving picture where we're looking to give them both the kind of indication and warning of various potential aggressive moves, but also opportunities to try to create greater stability in a situation that is very hard to maintain stability around. So maybe that's as short as I can make it on Russia. I know, there's so much to say on all of these issues. 

For Iran, it is, you know, again, like, just to take the sort of what's happening right now in the Middle East and look at the different lenses through which this is, through which Iran is interacting with the United States — I'm trying to think how to do this quickly. I think of the three that you identified, right, Iran is in the weakest position, in many respects. I mean, and I think right now, we see their economy is under extraordinary pressure. 

Troy: Economically and militarily. 

Avril: Right, exactly. Nevertheless, they have supported and facilitated whole series of just, you know, whether it be terrorism, they support proxy groups that are attacking our forces in the region and have been, I mean, now, there's been over 100 attacks against forces and assets in the east just in since October 7. They're supported by them, they support the Houthis and the activities that they're engaged in in the Red Sea. And they are without, you know, from our perspective, a destabilizing force in the region. And yet, part of what we have to do, I think, in the intelligence community — and this is true across the board — is help policymakers understand why they're doing what they're doing, what their interests are, how those actions are likely to evolve, so that they can sort of get the trade-space right for how to manage the stability and, you know, and the instability, and move forward in a way that doesn't create greater conflict and violence, ultimately, in the spaces and pursue our interest. And it is a, yeah, challenging. There's a lot to be said about all three of these countries. Yeah.

Troy: In respect of all three of them, I wanted to pick up on something you said earlier, when talking about the run-up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, that — and I can sort of feel myself in the room, scratching my head saying, “Well, this doesn't make any sense. Why would — why would Putin do this? When I think of Iran, you know, proxy groups that they're backing, why would you do this? You're, you know, economically weak, you don't have great military power. Why, why sort of go around poking other powers?” 

I mean, that must be a challenge in your world where you're seeing things, you're seeing intelligence pointing in one direction, but the model we have of how states interact with each other would suggest a rational decision-making process that would lead in a very different direction. Again, another really small question — how do you balance that? How do you say, “Oh, this totally makes sense, because it fits what we would expect in the circumstances, and this doesn't make sense because it's not what we would think a rational actor would do under some model of international relations?” 

Avril: Yeah, it's one of the critical, like, crucial traps that people can fall into. It is. And it's fascinating, because I think, you know, during my time at Columbia, I got to spend some time with Bob Jervis, who passed away a few years, and is a really remarkable professor there who has worked with the intelligence community for many years. 

And one of the things that he spent a lot of time on was Iraq WMD, and a variety of things where we had not, you know, where we've made mistakes, and trying to help us understand, basically, lessons learned and what we've done. But, among the things that I think of him for his scholarship on is, is on this point, to some extent, which is to say that often we look at states and their actions through our own rational lens, and look for them to do what it is that we expect we would do if we were in their position, is sort of the, right? And in fact, you know, people matter, not surprisingly, and also the culture, the story, the narrative — all of those things are critical. And one of the really great things, I think, that in the context of the Russia-Ukraine piece, and, you know, there's sort of another side to the going out and telling everybody, this is what's going to happen, which is to say that, I think for all of us, we were also like, “Boy, I really hope we're right, because like, this is not going to go well, if, you know, it turns out,” right? But I have to say, like the analysts who really work on these issues, and are experts, and you know, and in consultation with other expertise, I mean, this is really where I think the community of thought that is in the United States and in other countries that gets together and really helps to enrich our thinking. 

And this helped us to see, like, you know, the sort of historical significance of Ukraine to Russia, right, to the perception of Putin, the fact that, you know, he perceived the breakdown of the Soviet Union as sort of the greatest tragedy of the century. The perspective of Ukraine moving further away from, essentially, the influence and ambit of Russia towards NATO, the increasing capacity of their military because of training and other things that they were engaged in. The concern about, ultimately, if they engaged and actually came to NATO, how that would affect Crimea, how that would affect, you know, Russia's capacity to continue to effectively occupy Crimea, and whether or not that would lead into war, whether looking at the West, his perception — and continued perception — that his resolve would outlast ours, ultimately, on these issues. That we would be too tied to the fact that energy prices were high and he'd be able to use that against us to weaken our resolve, ultimately. That, you know, that he had, at the time that he invaded, probably the best economic situation he'd had in a very long time with a significant reserve of funds, right? Like, you know, there were just a whole series of things that led him to see, like, “This is probably my best moment. It's not going to get any better. This is utterly critical to me as a legacy issue. I do not want to be the leader of Russia that lost Ukraine.” And as you started to walk through it, you began to better understand how it is that it came to this thing.

Another question we often get is, you know, how serious is President Xi about Taiwan? Right, like, very serious, you know. So, it's like, we have to look at things through their lens, and I do think that's a critical piece of what the intelligence community can bring to the table for policymakers is that other perspective. 

Troy: So, that that sort of richer, explanatory context. So, I want to ask you a final question. You mentioned Iraq and WMDs. I wanted to ask about mistakes, and if you would want to comment on mistakes made within the intelligence community in recent years, how you think about, sort of, “Okay, that was a mistake, this is how we respond to it.” How do institutions more broadly learn from their mistakes? 

Avril: Over to me?

Troy: Or you haven't made any? Yes.

Avril: Yeah, I mean, I personally feel very strongly about this issue in the following way, and then I'll bring it back to the intelligence community. I think it is fundamental that we make space in our society to accept that mistakes get made, and that they can then be corrected. I've worked in government for a very long time as a civil servant, in different government. You know, it happens, and the reality is that if you are afraid of acknowledging it, and then, you are not going to actually address the problem as effectively. And so, I think one of the things that I try to promote is, first of all, that when we do make mistakes, we acknowledge it, that we then do our best to fix it. And, we try to do so as transparently as possible, but it is really helpful when others participate in that in a way that is productive, and then ultimately try to help us to, in fact, improve over time. 

Now, I'll take it in the intelligence community — there's lots of mistakes that get made. And now, some of them, you know, we focused in on analysis, right? Iraq WMD, or other things like that. There's a few things that I'd say about that. I mean, first of all, I'm extremely proud of the times that we get it right, and we get it right more often than we get it wrong. And, I will tell you that you don't hear about a lot of the times we get it right, because, well, that's when we've been successful. So, there is that piece of it that I just feel compelled to say, like, it really is extraordinary. The other piece is that yes, we do — and there are places, like, we've had a lot of discussions, for example, about, yes, we got it right about Putin interested in a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, right? But we did not anticipate how the trajectory of that battle, right? Both in terms of, in a sense, the capacity of the Russian military, but also the execution of the Russian military plan, and there are a whole series of things that we've gone back to look at to say, “So why did we expect them to be more successful than they ultimately were? And how can we learn from that?” And, I can't tell you the number of papers that get written on that, right? Like, this sort of constantly going back to sort of see, and then we're trying to test it, and then we're seeing, well, if we did that in these scenarios, would we have seen something different, and so on. 

And it's both, it's intellectually inspiring, because it's actually fascinating to talk through these things, and just to give you a sense of some of the things that I think were really interesting about it are things like the fact that, you know, we think the fact that the plan was held so tightly, for example, in the context of the Russian invasion, that it actually meant that they weren't able to do as much kind of interagency consulting, right? Like, to vetting and like logistics with folks that normally what, like? There's a variety of things like that that you sort of go through, and what it makes you think about is, okay, it's not just about how many tanks they've got — which of course, you know, our analysts knew this, right — but how many tanks there are, like, their capacity to do XY and Z, the ammunition, personnel, et cetera, but also like, how are they planning and how does that affect, you know, the battle. So, there's all kinds of really interesting — but it's also inspiring, honestly, to see us look at things, figure it out, get better, move forward, try to improve how it is that we do things. And I see, you know, very much in the kind of man in the arena version. Like, I think those failures are absolutely part of success, right? Like, you cannot be successful unless you have some of those impacts that then help you get better in the context of your work. So, I think important. 

We also like, you know, we're in the midst of FISA renewal discussions, right? We have an extension, and a lot of you probably know this stuff. It tends to be quite technical and there and there are some people who are very deep. But, this is, you know, an area where, to some of your earlier questions, right, we’re basically under statute that we have that allows us to do certain collection of foreign intelligence of non-U.S. persons outside of the United States, under certain circumstances, so on. We produce, we go through an annual certification process with the FISC court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. We do 60-day reviews within the executive branch that the Department of Justice and ODNI go through to make sure that, in fact, when targeting was done, it was done according to the guidelines that were issued, you know, that were approved by court. W do semiannual reports to Congress about this. We do annual transparency reports about this.

And we tell people, including publicly, “Here are the number of mistakes that were made when we were doing this,” right? Like, “This is, like, what our process is, and so on.” And that is part of it, and part of what the debate is said is, “Look, you know, first of all, we think you're making too many mistakes. And we think you need to reform your system to make less mistakes. But also, we want to see accountability for those mistakes.” And that's the kind of debate that I think is a perfectly rational, like, we have to have those discussions in order to be able to get to a better place. So, those are two examples of, yeah, the types of things that we do wrong.

Troy: I want to thank you so much for your thoughtfulness, for being here, for engaging on some of the most important topics facing the country, facing the world. Please join me in thanking Director Haines.

Paras: We hope you enjoyed the remarks by Director Haines and the conversation with Dean McKenzie. You can find all of Just Security’s coverage of the rigorous analysis of security, democracy, foreign policy, and rights on our website. Special thanks to our colleagues at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU Law for their support. 

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