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.