President-elect Joe Biden is strongly considering Mike Morell, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to run the CIA, according to four individuals familiar with the matter. But those familiar with the process say that other candidates are still in the mix for the position of the nation’s top spy chief.
Morell served as deputy CIA director for three years under President Barack Obama and also worked as acting director of the agency twice. According to three of the four sources familiar with the matter, the president-elect was considering both Morell and Avril Haines, another former deputy CIA director, for the position. But in an announcement Monday afternoon, Biden picked Haines, the former deputy director for the CIA and deputy national security adviser under Obama, to become director of national intelligence.
Two of the aforementioned sources said that Biden is also considering Tom Donilon for the post. Donilon served as Obama’s national security adviser and has deep roots in Bidenworld. His brother, Mike Donilon, has already been tapped as a White House senior adviser for the president-elect.
Another name said to be in the mix is Jeh Johnson, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security. But others told The Daily Beast Johnson was under consideration for the role of Attorney General. As one source said of the current staffing considerations: “Too many people, too few chairs."
Biden’s presidential transition team declined to comment.
Among those on Biden’s CIA shortlist, Morell may have the most directly relevant experience but, potentially, be the hardest to confirm.
That’s because his selection would risk inflaming the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. A career CIA analyst who played a significant role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden–and was George W. Bush’s intelligence briefer on 9/11–Morell was an aggressive defender of the agency’s use of torture and drone strikes.
“No torture apologist can be confirmed as CIA director,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate intelligence committee, told The Daily Beast about Morell. “It’s a non-starter.”
Putting Morell atop the CIA would likely placate a large chunk of the national security establishment, which views his expertise as an asset and believes he would seamlessly step into the lead role at the agency. Sue Gordon, who served as Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said that "of the people mentioned for this position" she knew Morell best.
"He would bring a lot of strengths: a quick, analytic mind; leadership at every level at the Agency; and a broadened perspective based on his time in the private sector," Gordon added. "I know him to be committed to the people, the craft, and the delivery of the intelligence the Nation needs."
But a Morell nomination would also likely raise immediate questions about whether Biden intends more continuity than departure in the nearly 20-year war on terror, despite saying on the campaign trail that he agreed with ending endless wars.
The “only way” to deal with terrorists, Morell said in a 2015 interview with Vice News, “is to keep the pressure on them at all times. When you take the pressure off, they start planning and they are successful in that planning.”
Reuters was first to report that Morell and Haines had emerged as leading contenders to take over the top spy positions in a Biden administration.
A former longtime Republican national security official who knows Morell indicated that he wants to take on the role, and concerns about his past shouldn’t be an impediment.
“He’s not an arrogant guy at all, if you know him,” said the source. “Obviously he’s highly professional. He’s the kind of guy who will do the job.”
During President Donald Trump’s term in office, Morell has been a CBS commentator and hosted a podcast popular in national-security circles, Intelligence Matters, which has been a redoubt for Democratic-aligned intelligence figures during the Trump era. Guests have included Tony Blinken, whom Biden nominated as secretary of state on Monday, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s announced national security adviser.
While one former Republican intelligence official described Morell as a “straight-shooter with integrity,” some Democrats are likely to question his legacy.
In his 2015 memoir, The Great War of Our Time, Morell called drone strikes the “single most effective [counterterrorism] tool in the last five years” and dismissed accounts of substantial civilian casualties as “highly exaggerated.” By contrast, in 2016, survivors of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have described how the strikes killed and maimed their friends, their young relatives, and their grandparents.
In a 2016 New York Times op-ed endorsing then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and excoriating Trump, Morell credited the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center chief, who ran the drone strikes at the time, as the single person “most responsible for keeping America safe since the Sept. 11 attacks.” That individual, Michael D’Andrea, reportedly went on to run the CIA’s Iran operations under Trump. (Morell did not identify D’Andrea, whose identity is an official secret.)
Morell took a lead role in excoriating the Senate intelligence committee’s landmark 2014 report on CIA torture, even taking issue with the word "torture," a characterization he disputed despite the CIA having inflicted mock drownings, sleep deprivation, severely restricted diets, and painful physical contortions on at least 39 people out of at least 119 it held in unacknowledged prisons from 2002 to 2008. Some of them experienced sexual assaults, in the guise of “rectal rehydration” or “rectal feeding.” One was subject to a mock execution. Another, Gul Rahman, froze to death in a CIA prison.
Morell clashed with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the former chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee who ran the chamber’s torture investigation. Her 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 2015 Vice News interview, appeared to defend not only the efficacy of torture–which the Senate report’s declassified version said was not only nil but obscured by an edifice of agency lies–but its morality.
“There’s another side to the morality coin,” Morell said. “What’s the morality of not using these techniques on a detainee if you really believe that you have to do that in order to save American lives? And so the question of morality gets really hard.”
Both Morell and Haines supported their former CIA colleague Gina Haspel, a central figure in CIA torture, whom Trump appointed as CIA director in 2018. To Daniel J. Jones, who was the Senate’s chief torture investigator, leaving the intelligence community in the hands of Haines and Morell would be the latest consequence of Obama’s decision to “look forward and not back” for accountability over CIA torture.
“Among the reported contenders for CIA director, Mike Morell would be the most disappointing nominee,” Jones told The Daily Beast.
“As deputy director, Morell showed he was incapable of holding CIA officers accountable for the most blatant wrongdoing. Morell continues to deny the CIA engaged in torture–notwithstanding that the CIA’s interrogation methods included waterboarding, rectal feeding, and other abusive treatment that led to injuries and the death of at least one detainee,” Jones said. “And his disrespect for legislative oversight should be disqualifying. How could someone with Morell’s history be the nominee when we know how much Biden values oversight and accountability?”
After this piece was published, Nick Shapiro, a former deputy CIA chief of staff and spokesperson for Morell, commented: "Michael Morell is one of the smartest, most dedicated and hardest working intelligence officers we have. He has served both Democrats and Republicans for decades. He was by President Bush’s side on 9/11 and with President Obama when we removed Osama Bin Laden.
“Morell was not in any way involved with the creation of the EIT program and he did not even learn about it until 2006, four years after it started. He publicly stated in a 2013 60 Minutes interview and wrote in his 2015 book that he believed waterboarding is indeed torture,” Shapiro continued, using an acronym for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the CIA’s preferred term for torture.
“Morell believes there were many mistakes with the EIT program and has written extensively on them.”
A week after this piece was published, Shapiro reached out to say Morell misremembered, and had not called waterboarding torture in either his book or the 2013 interview, but rather in a 2016 interview.