President-elect Joe Biden is strongly considering Mike Morell, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to lead the CIA, according to four people familiar with the matter. But those familiar with the process say other candidates are still in the squad for the post of chief spy in the country.
Morell was deputy director of the CIA for three years under President Barack Obama and also worked twice as the agency’s acting director. According to three of four sources familiar with the matter, the president-elect was considering both Morell and Avril Haines, another former deputy director of the CIA, for the job. But in an announcement Monday afternoon, Biden chose Haines, the former deputy director of the CIA and deputy national security adviser under Obama, to become director of national intelligence.
Two of the aforementioned sources said Biden was also considering Tom Donilon for the job. Donilon was Obama’s national security adviser and has deep roots in Bidenworld. His brother, Mike Donilon, has previously been selected as senior White House adviser to the president-elect.
Jeh Johnson, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security, is another name said to be in the mix. But others told the Daily Beast that Johnson was under consideration for the role of attorney general. As one source said of current staffing considerations: “Too many people, too few chairs.”
Biden’s presidential transition team declined to comment.
Of those on Biden’s CIA shortlist, Morell may have the most directly relevant experience but, potentially, the most difficult to confirm.
This is because his selection would risk igniting the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A career CIA analyst who was instrumental in the hunt for Osama bin Laden – and was George W. Bush’s intelligence spokesperson on September 11 – Morell was an aggressive advocate for the use of torture and drone strikes by the agency.
“No apologist for torture can be confirmed as a director of the CIA,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Senate Intelligence Committee member, told The Daily Beast of Morell. “It’s a non-starter.”
“No apologist for torture can be confirmed as a director of the CIA. It is a non-starter.“
– Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Placing Morell at the top of the CIA would likely further appease much of the Democratic national security establishment, which views his expertise as an asset and believes he would transparently take on the agency’s lead role. But it’s also likely that it raises immediate questions about whether Biden intends more continuity than starting in the nearly 20-year war on terror, despite having said on election campaign he was agree with the end of endless wars.
The “only way” to deal with terrorists, Morell said in an interview with Vice News in 2015, “is to keep the pressure on them at all times. When you release the pressure, they start planning and they are successful in that planning. “
Reuters was the first to report that Morell and Haines had become the main contenders for leading spy posts in a Biden administration. A representative for Morell declined to comment.
A longtime former Republican national security official who knows Morell has indicated he wants to take on the role, and worries about his past shouldn’t be an obstacle.
“He’s not an arrogant guy at all, if you know him,” the source said. “Obviously he’s very professional. He’s the kind of guy who will do the job.
During President Donald Trump’s tenure, Morell was a CBS commentator and hosted a popular podcast in national security circles, Intelligence questions, which was a redoubt for Democrat-aligned intelligence figures during the Trump era. Guests included Tony Blinken, whom Biden appointed Secretary of State Monday, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s ad national security adviser.
While a former Republican intelligence official has described Morell as a “direct shooter with integrity,” some Democrats are likely to question his legacy.
In his 2015 memoirs, The great war of our time, Morell called the drone hits the “simple more effective [counterterrorism] tool over the past five years ”and dismissed accounts of many civilian casualties as“ grossly exaggerated ”. In contrast, in 2016, survivors of drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen described how the airstrikes killed and maimed their friends, young parents and grandparents.
In a 2016 New York Times In an op-ed endorsing then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and excoriating Trump, Morell credited the head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, which directed the drone strikes at the time, as the only person “ most responsible for America’s security since the 9/11 attacks. “This individual, Michael D’Andrea, is said to have subsequently led CIA operations in Iran under Trump. (Morell has not identified D’Andrea, whose identity is an official secret.)
“Too many people, too few chairs.“
– A source familiar with Biden’s staffing decisions
Morell was instrumental in rebutting the Senate Intelligence Committee’s landmark 2014 report on CIA torture, a characterization he declined despite the CIA inflicting mock drowning, deprivation of sleep, severely restricted diets and painful physical contortions on at least 39 people out of at least 119 he was held in unrecognized prisons from 2002 to 2008. Some of them suffered sexual assault, under the guise of ” rectal rehydration ”or“ rectal feeding ”. One was the subject of an execution simulation. Another, Gul Rahman, froze to death in a CIA prison.
“I don’t like to call it torture for a simple reason: Calling it torture says my guys were torturers,” Morell told Vice in 2015. “I’ll defend my guys until my last breath.
Morell clashed with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee that led the chamber’s torture investigation. His office, in 2015, issued a 54-page rebuttal to Morell’s account of the torture program. A representative for Feinstein did not return a request for comment.
Morrell, in his interview with Vice News in 2015, appeared to champion not only the effectiveness of torture – which the declassified version of the Senate report said was not only void but obscured by an edifice of agency lies – but his morality.
“There is another side to the moral coin,” Morell said. “What is the morality of do not use these techniques on an inmate if you really think you have to do it to save American lives? And so the question of morality becomes really difficult.
Morell and Haines backed their former CIA colleague Gina Haspel, a central figure in CIA torture, whom Trump appointed CIA director in 2018. To Daniel J. Jones, who was the chief Senate investigator on torture, leaving the intelligence community in the hands of Haines and Morell would be the latest consequence of Obama’s decision to “look forward, not back” to account for CIA torture.
“Among the contenders for the post of director of the CIA, Mike Morell would be the most disappointing candidate,” Jones told the Daily Beast.
“As deputy director, Morell has shown that he is incapable of holding CIA officers accountable for the most egregious wrongdoing. Morell continues to deny that the CIA engaged in torture – despite the fact that the CIA’s interrogation methods included waterboarding, rectal feeding and other abusive treatment that resulted in injuries and death to at least one inmate, ”Jones said. “And his lack of respect for legislative oversight should be disqualifying. How could someone with Morell’s story be the nominee when we know how much Biden values oversight and accountability? “
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