He cut his teeth following money trails through the warrens of international banking rather than stealing secrets or killing people. But the person Joe Biden is currently leaning toward for running the CIA garners respect even from ex-Trump officials—and has a close relationship with the woman who’s likely to be the center of gravity in the intelligence community in the coming years.
Ex-Treasury Department Undersecretary and Deputy CIA Director David S. Cohen, as several news outlets have noted, has become the frontrunner for Biden’s first CIA director, according to knowledgeable sources. Tom Donilon, one of Barack Obama’s national security advisers, once looked likely to get the job, but Donilon took himself out of consideration shortly after Thanksgiving.
Biden has several other candidates under consideration. Among the named: Susan Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence who quit the Trump administration in 2019; the former Defense Intelligence Agency director and retired Marine three-star general Vincent Stewart; and Darrell Blocker, said to be more of a long shot, a retired agency veteran with experience in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.
Mike Morell, however, looks increasingly unlikely to return to Langley. The former acting CIA director and deputy director’s chances cratered after Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will consider the nomination, told The Daily Beast that an apologist for torture would be “a non-starter.” Morell has a history of defending the agency’s post-9/11 torture program, which, outside of waterboarding, he has not acknowledged as torture.
Cohen “has an excellent reputation. He’s grounded, and there isn’t the baggage that Michael Morell had. Michael’s not going to be considered now just because of the interrogations,” said a former senior Trump administration official who requested anonymity. “Cohen is a safe bet.”
Either Cohen or Blocker would be the CIA’s second Jewish director. (Richard Nixon appointee James Schlesinger was born Jewish but converted as a young man; Bill Clinton appointee John Deutsch was the first Jewish director.) Either Blocker or Stewart would be its first Black director. Gordon would be its second woman director.
Biden is said not to have finalized his choice yet, leaving the CIA directorship one of the last powerful Cabinet positions unannounced, alongside the future attorney general. Others may be interviewed and Biden might also expand his search. It’s also unclear when an announcement may come.
The Biden transition declined to comment for this story. So did Cohen.
But the CIA director won’t be the most important intelligence official in the Biden administration. That’s going to be Avril Haines, whom Biden has tapped as the first woman to be director of national intelligence (DNI).
The relationship between the director of national intelligence and the CIA director has varied under each of the three administrations since Congress created the DNI position in 2004. The law establishing it gives the director more prestige than budgetary power or chain-of-command authority. That’s rendered its importance a function of whatever a given president wants. The Biden camp considers the director of national intelligence to be more properly the leader of the intelligence agencies than a coordinator among them. And with Haines, Biden will have a DNI he’s worked with for over a decade.
Cohen “has a very good relationship with Avril Haines,” said the ex-Trump senior official. “I think that makes for a very good start for the administration.”
While Cohen is neither a CIA lifer nor a Democratic powerbroker—typical choices for Democratic presidents to send to Langley—he also isn’t a dark horse candidate.
Cohen, an attorney by training, was an architect of the infamous 2001 PATRIOT Act while at the Treasury Department’s legal-counsel office. The provision he crafted, however, had to do with increasing reporting requirements for banks against money laundering, rather than its intrusive surveillance and policing measures. During Barack Obama’s presidency, Cohen spent five years at the Treasury tracking and combating financial networks that facilitate terrorism or evade economic sanctions.
Cohen was one of the architects of the Obama administration’s economic strangulation of Iran. Tony Blinken, now Biden’s choice for secretary of state, told The New York Times in 2014 that without Cohen’s “relentless efforts we would not be where we are in terms of getting the Iranians to the negotiating table with the chance of reaching a diplomatic solution.” Cohen, in a speech that year, called for the Iran sanctions “carefully designed and customized to maximize pressure” and hailed them for “imped[ing] Iran’s ability to acquire material for its nuclear program, isolat[ing] it from the international financial system, drastically slash[ing] its oil exports, and depriv[ing] it of access to a sizeable portion of its oil revenues and foreign reserves.” Cohen also had the gargantuan task of harming the so-called Islamic State’s wallet at a time when it commanded oil assets worth $1 million per day. The Obama people called Cohen their “financial Batman.”
He moved to the CIA in early 2015 to succeed Haines as deputy director. It was a delicate time at Langley. Haines had been involved in limiting the declassification of the Senate torture report and in absolving CIA officials who spied on Senate investigators. Cohen had no such baggage as the agency sought to repair its relationship with its Senate overseers. But a former agency official told Yahoo News’ Jenna McLaughlin that Cohen was “fully involved in the drone program.”
Outside Cohen’s work in financial intelligence, he’s perhaps best known in intelligence circles for implementing an internally controversial reorganization to make the CIA more digitally fluent. And outside of intelligence circles in general, he’s perhaps best known as a Game of Thrones extra.
More recently, Cohen has been among the dozens of Obama administration veterans working at the WestExec Advisors corporate consultancy. That company’s alumni include two people slated to be among Biden’s most powerful cabinet officials: Blinken and Haines. Along with Haines and Morell, Cohen lent public support to the nomination of Gina Haspel, the current CIA director who is implicated in post-9/11 torture.
Out of office, Cohen has warned opponents of the Iran nuclear deal and advocates of overthrowing Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro that they won’t be able to sanction their way to regime change. Along with Haines and Morell, Cohen wrote a scathing piece in April about Trump’s politicization of the intelligence agencies, something that will be an immediate concern for the next DNI and CIA director.
Their article contained an implicit rebuke of Haspel, whom they all supported: “Not a single intelligence community leader said a word publicly when [Trump ally and] former U.S. Attorney Joe diGenova attacked the whistleblower who prompted impeachment proceedings as a presidential assassin, the equivalent, he said, of John Wilkes Booth… their silence sent its own message to the intelligence workforce regarding their willingness to appease the president.”