Joe Biden’s pick to serve as director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, previously served as a consultant to a controversial Silicon Valley technology firm that provided digital profiling tools that helped facilitate U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on illegal immigrants.
Haines, who if confirmed by the Senate will be the nation’s first female intelligence chief, has long been considered a Washington, D.C. insider. During the Obama years, Haines first came to prominence as a deputy White House counsel for national security, a position in which she helped design the administration’s legal framework for using drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas.
Upon then-President Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, Haines was made deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. She held the post until 2015 when she was promoted to deputy national security adviser, a role in which she would oversee the administration’s refugee resettlement policy.
After Obama left office, Haines became a lecturer at Columbia Law School but maintained one foot in public life as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Like many former White House appointees, she also cashed in on her political connections by joining the lucrative world of strategic consulting and governmental affairs.
A little less than seven months after leaving office, Haines signed up as a consultant to Palantir, a Colorado-based data-mining firm. Officially, Haines advised the company on its diversity hiring practices, especially in the realm of female empowerment. Her hiring by the firm, though, drew notice given her background in national security issues, which by 2017 was the area of practice in which Palantir was most engaged.
Starting in the early-2010s, Palantir began vying for governmental contracts to write software capable of auditing and detecting fraud through data mining, a practice that involves collecting random and disparate sources of information to show intersecting relationships.
In 2010, Palantir first received notice in the nation’s capital after then-Vice President Joe Biden lauded it for helping root out fraud and corruption in federal stimulus programs. The following year, the digital tools the company helped design for U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, allegedly helped track down the location of Osama bin Laden.
Since then the company’s work with the federal government has only grown in scale. By the time that Haines was tapped for her consultancy role, Palantir’s data mining software was being used not only by the CIA, but also by agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Centers for Disease Control, among others.
One of those relationships, however, has been at the center of controversy in recent years. Starting in 2014, Palantir received a government contract, estimated to be worth upwards of $42 million, from ICE. The agency has officially tasked Palantir with developing data mining tools for investigating criminal activities.
At the time, with deportations falling from a high of 973,000 in 2009, ICE’s focus was shifting away from border and immigration issues to combating transnational crime and smuggling. When President Donald Trump took office, after running an intense campaign focused primarily on restricting illegal immigration, ICE’s priorities shifted once more. This time, the agency would focus heavily on protecting the border and enforcing immigration statutes. ICE’s mandate for such work was only expanded by Trump between 2017 and 2018 when migrant caravans from the Central American triangle began arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
With this shift, Palantir’s data mining tools became “mission-critical” to ICE’s efforts to locate and deport illegal immigrants, according to federal documents published by The Intercept in 2017. Palantir’s software not only allows ICE to pool information from various federal and local law enforcement agencies to track down the last known whereabouts of illegal aliens. Palantir’s system also compiles personal information relating to an individuals’ education, employment, family relationships, biometric traits, and phone records, among other details.
Such information has proved vital to the series of raids that ICE has executed on illegal immigrant communities in recent years. A confidential in-house ICE report leaked in 2019 shows that Palantir’s data mining operation played a key role in helping federal authorities ascertain, locate, and arrest the parents of underage illegal aliens crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on their own.
The revelations about Palantir’s ties to ICE and immigration raids caused an internal revolt among the company’s employees in August 2019. At the time, more than 200 of the firm’s employees signed a letter demanding Palantir end its contract with the federal government. Palantir, for its part, demurred and still counts ICE as one of its clients.
Haines, for her part, seems to have taken the controversy evoked by Palantir’s work with ICE more seriously. In June 2020, shortly after being tapped to helm the foreign policy and national security portfolio on Biden’s transition team, Haines’ biography was scrubbed of any mention of Palantir, as first reported by The Intercept.
The Biden transition team did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Haine’s consulting work come back into the spotlight as progressives have already begun signaling their displeasure with her nomination for director of national intelligence.