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Biden caught between progressives and national security veterans on CIA pick

Jenna McLaughlin
·National Security and Investigations Reporter
·10 min read
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WASHINGTON — Fourteen years ago, Khaled el-Masri, a German man of Lebanese descent, arrived in the U.S. to attend his legal proceedings against the U.S. government, alongside his attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Following the 9/11 attack, el-Masri was mistaken by the CIA for an al-Qaida terrorist and was snatched off a bus while on his way to Macedonia for a vacation. He was then, he maintained, held and tortured for months in the covert CIA site in Afghanistan dubbed the “Salt Pit.”

During his U.S. visit, he gave a briefing to congressional aides in the basement of the U.S. Capitol in a room reserved by then-Sen. Joe Biden, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, one aide recalled.

In his days as a senator, Biden may not have been the most prominent anti-torture advocate, but he was known as a reliable vote against Cabinet picks associated with the practice. In 2007, he was just one of two presidential candidates to sign on to a bill to close Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he convened one of the few public Senate hearings on extraordinary rendition.

In 2013, then-Vice President Biden and Sen. John McCain, the former top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, advocated for the full release of the Senate Democrats’ 6,000-plus-page investigative report on the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation technique program, often referred to simply as the torture report.

Last week, President-elect Biden quickly announced his intention to nominate multiple long-standing allies to lead his administration on national security and foreign policy issues — including close adviser Antony Blinken to be secretary of state and former Deputy CIA Director Avril Haines to be director of national intelligence.

President-elect Joe Biden stands with his nominees for his national security team at his transition headquarters in the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 24, 2020. (L-R), are: Antony Blinken to be secretary of state; Jake Sullivan to be U.S. national security adviser; Alejandro Mayorkas to be secretary of Homeland Security; Avril Haines to be director of national intelligence; John Kerry to be a special envoy for climate change; and Ambassador to the United Nations-nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who stands behind Vice President-elect Kamala Haris. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
President-elect Joe Biden stands with his nominees for his national security team at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 24. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

However, Biden, cognizant of the battles brewing within the Democratic Party and wary of a protracted fight to get his team in place as he tries to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, has yet to announce his choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.

In choosing the CIA director, an instrumental figure at the helm of an agency responsible for covert operations around the globe, Biden will have to contend with Senate Republicans, who could prove crucial to confirmation, but also pressure from progressives in his own party and human rights experts who want him to choose a female or nonwhite candidate without ties to the agency’s post-9/11 legacy, which included torture and targeted killings.

Meanwhile, moderates and some national security veterans, who supported Biden as an establishment alternative to President Trump, bemoan the relitigation of what they consider settled issues, fearing that Biden will fail to promote the most qualified candidate, who can reestablish trust in the intelligence community after Trump is gone and carry the agency into the future.

Two of the initial top names floated for CIA head were Michael Morell, a former acting director of the agency, and Haines, who has since been tapped by Biden to be director of national intelligence. Tom Donilon, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, was also mentioned as a candidate for director of national intelligence or the CIA, but he is reportedly now out of the running, preferring to stay in the private sector.

Former CIA acting director Michael Morell speaks during a forum on election security at the National Press Club in Washington, on October 30, 2019.   (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Michael Morell. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

For months, Morell, a national security commentator and host of the podcast “Intelligence Matters” for CBS News as well as a senior counselor at the Washington consulting firm Beacon Global Strategies, has been considered the top candidate for the job, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. It’s unclear whether he still occupies that spot.

The president-elect’s transition team declined to comment on Biden’s thinking.

However, Morell, in his 33-year career from entry-level analyst to two-time acting CIA director, knows the agency in and out. He graduated from college with a degree in economics and applied to the CIA “on a lark” based on a professor’s recommendation, according to his memoir, “The Great War of Our Time,” and didn’t leave until 2013.

Morell, who worked on everything from stolen elections in the Philippines to North Korea’s nascent nuclear weapons program, soon vaulted to positions advising and assisting senior CIA officers. He was tapped to be President George W. Bush’s personal intelligence briefer for the first year of Bush’s presidency, traveling with him frequently, including a trip to Florida to an elementary school where the administration first learned about commercial planes crashing into the twin towers in New York City on 9/11.

Throughout much of that time, before and after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Morell was focused on the threat of terrorism, he wrote in his book. He was deeply involved in providing advice and intelligence to Obama during the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, which concluded in a successful operation that killed the terrorist group leader. (Morell recalled that then-Vice President Biden was against it at the time, out of fear of a diplomatic snafu with Pakistan.)

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (L) stand with presidential nominees during a White House event in Washington, January 7, 2013. From left, are:Panetta, Defense Secretary-nominee nominee Chuck Hagel, Obama, CIA Director-nominee John Brennan and acting CIA Director Michael Morell. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Barack Obama speaks at a White House event in 2013 as Morell, far right, looks on. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

While Morell was never an operations officer directly involved in the CIA’s counterterrorism practices, he has come under fire for his past support and rationalization of those activities, as well as his role in clearing the names of CIA officers involved in destroying videotapes depicting torture. Progressives also see his views on the effectiveness of drone strikes as problematic.

On Twitter, Daniel Jones, the lead author of the comprehensive 6,700-page report produced by Senate Democrats on torture based on a review of millions of the CIA’s own documents, outlined several points where Morell has defended the agency’s activities, despite contrary evidence. Jones expanded on those points in an essay for the national security blog Just Security, alongside the Washington director of the Center for Victims of Torture, Scott Roehm.

“We had hoped that the candidate pool for prospective senior national security positions in the Biden administration would exclude those who have defended the torture program, thwarted efforts to hold individuals accountable for their participation in it, or sought to undermine the Senate’s investigation of the CIA torture program,” wrote Jones and Roehm. “Unfortunately, this may not be the case.”

Nick Shapiro, the former CIA deputy chief of staff and now a spokesperson for Morell and others, told Yahoo News in an email that “Morell was not in any way involved with the creation of the [enhanced interrogation technique] program and he did not even learn about it until 2006, four years after it started. He publicly stated in the 2016 documentary The Spymasters that he believed waterboarding is indeed torture.” (That documentary actually aired first on Showtime in November 2015 before debuting with CBS in May 2016.)

In the documentary, Morell claimed that if he were personally waterboarded, as opposed to slapped in the face, for example, he would “come back and say [he] was tortured,” though he previously opposed the use of the word to describe waterboarding in his 2015 book and in other interviews. Morell, through Shapiro, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about why his views appear to have changed on the subject.

An unclassified talking points document is shown as former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell  testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 2, 2014, before the House Intelligence Committee.  Morell, who edited the widely debunked talking points on the 2012 Benghazi attack, answered questions from the House intelligence committee in a rare open session. The hearing provides Morell with a chance to explain why he deleted references to al-Qaida.  (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Morell testifies in 2014 before the House Intelligence Committee. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

On Morell’s qualifications, Shapiro wrote that he “is one of the smartest, most dedicated and hardest working intelligence officers we have. He has served both Democrats and Republicans for decades.”

CIA Director Gina Haspel survived a tough confirmation fight, despite progressive concerns about her links to torture, but partly because Democrats at the time worried that Trump might nominate someone they viewed as worse, like Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. But Biden’s pick will likely be held to a higher standard.

Progressives and human rights experts argue that a promise not to torture — including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, beatings, threats and sexual humiliation — isn’t enough.

“If the Biden administration wants to show it is breaking from the past, and that the U.S. can be a principled leader that upholds international law, it needs to choose officials who will uphold those principles — not ones known for permitting torture or extrajudicial killings,” wrote Priyanka Motaparthy, the director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School, in an email to Yahoo News.

Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch, agreed, arguing that while Biden would likely lose progressive support by choosing Morell, the “more important” consequence would be “the message it would send around the world that the U.S. will continue to cover up torture,” she wrote in an email to Yahoo News.

The other names mentioned as possible CIA picks are a bit further from Biden’s orbit, including former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, a former Marine Corps general who penned a powerful personal essay about racism in America, and Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, a former CIA analyst who served multiple tours in Iraq and recently won a tough reelection race.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks on Nov. 25, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Stewart, one of the top officials on Biden’s intelligence community transition team, would face the challenge of building a personal relationship with Biden and adjusting from DIA to CIA, agencies that have had many squabbles over the years. Slotkin, on the other hand, would have to give up a hard-won seat and potentially further diminish the Democrats’ hold on the House.

Meanwhile, concerns about the CIA’s legacy of torture aren’t the only factor Biden will have to consider as he selects a candidate to lead the agency.

According to Marc Polymeropoulos, a recently retired senior CIA operations officer, Biden’s pick will also need to demonstrate national security experience and the ability to get the president’s ear. “The most successful CIA directors are those that have a personal relationship with the principal,” or the president, he told Yahoo News.

He recalled a joke that circled Washington when a small plane crashed on the White House lawn in 1994 and people at the CIA started saying it was then-CIA Director Jim Woolsey, trying to deliver the President’s Daily Brief to the White House.

Polymeropoulos pointed to several other major challenges faced by the CIA director, such as adapting the agency’s practice of going undercover to modern technology and working with the private sector, and figuring out ways to protect the workforce and allow them to work remotely during the pandemic. “The director will have to be able to innovate,” he said.

In Polymeropoulos’s view, Morell, a former colleague and friend, checks all those boxes.

“If Biden thinks Morell is the most qualified candidate, why not go for that fight?” he concluded.


A previous version of this story included a statement from Michael Morell spokesperson Nick Shapiro, who cited Morell’s 2015 book as evidence that Morell called the practice of waterboarding torture. While Morell described the practice as “harsh” in his book, he still opposed the use of the word “torture.” Later, in the documentary “The Spymasters,” he said he would personally believe he had been tortured if he were waterboarded.

In addition, a previous version of this story neglected to cite the fact that “The Spymasters” first aired in November 2015 on Showtime for paid subscribers.


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