Meet the Leading Contender to Replace David Petraeus at the CIA

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The agency's acting director could soon become permanent.

RTR33XI8-615a.jpgReuters

Even as the drama over David Petraeus continues, the CIA still has agents and operations to run all over the world. Somebody has to keep the lights on. That person is Michael Morell, the CIA's deputy director reportedly at the top of President Obama's shortlist to replace Petraeus permanently. In a statement Friday, Obama expressed "utmost confidence" in Morell in his capacity as acting director -- a signal many interpreted as an endorsement of Morell for Senate confirmation.

Obama's apparent pick is as natural as it is reassuring. This isn't Morell's first time running the agency; in 2011, he had a stint as acting director before Leon Panetta came on board and again ahead of Petraeus' own tenure. Morell is a career agency analyst -- not a member of the operations branch that runs clandestine agents -- who cut his teeth on East Asia, which promises to be a major priority for the White House as it completes its pivot away from the Middle East in Obama's second term.

Morell's academic training is in economics; together with his background in intelligence analysis, installing him at the top of the CIA puts the United States in a good position for a future that some say should focus less on counter-terrorism and its attendant kinetic operations (read: the agency's drone program).

Morell's expected nomination highlights some of the darker periods of his career. He was reportedly involved in the August 2001 briefing that warned President Bush about 9/11, and he was with the president the day of the attack. He was also a member of the CIA team that delivered the verdict on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that later turned out not to exist.

But Morell appears to have taken the mistake over Saddam to heart. Asked point-blank by President Obama about the chances Osama bin Laden actually inhabited the Abbottabad compound in which he was later killed, Morell, one of the architects of the Bin Laden raid, admitted he couldn't be sure:

He explained that counterterrorism analysts at work on al-Qaeda over the past five years had enjoyed a remarkable string of successes. They had been crushing the terror group inside Pakistan and systematically killing its top leadership. So they were very confident. Those who had been at work longer, like himself, had known failure. They knew the fragility of even the soundest-seeming intelligence analysis. The W.M.D. story had been a brutal lesson.

"Mr. President," he said, "if we had a human source who had told us directly that bin Laden was living in that compound, I still wouldn't be above 60 percent." Morell said he had spent a lot of time on both questions, W.M.D. and Abbottabad. He had seen no fewer than 13 analytical drafts on the former and at least as many on the latter. "And I'm telling you, the case for W.M.D. wasn't just stronger -- it was much stronger."

Morell's humility about the limits of his agency's intelligence is a promising sign.

Other names that have been floated in recent days include Jane Harman, the former California congresswoman who voted for the Iraq War, and Michael Vickers, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and a former CIA operations officer who helped arm Afghans in their battle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. 

Then there's John Brennan, Obama's powerful counterterrorism adviser who's been described as the nation's "actual national intelligence director." Brennan would be a controversial pick -- the man has been instrumental in building up the country's drone program and was a forceful advocate of enhanced interrogation. 

Which brings us back to Morell. He may not have the marquee recognition of a Brennan or a Vickers, but his cautious disposition, not to mention his affinity for numbers and analysis, would be well-suited for an agency whose primary mission is to understand and comprehend -- not to kill.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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