When David Petraeus resigned Friday as the director of the CIA after admitting to an extramarital affair, a career intelligence officer stepped in temporarily to take his place. Michael J. Morell, who was until recently the deputy director, is practically anonymous to most Americans, but has held some of the higher-profile intelligence jobs in Washington. He was chief of the staff that writes the President’s daily brief. He was an executive assistant to former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, a significant rung in the CIA career ladder. He oversaw the agency’s analysis work. He has already been acting director once, for a few months in 2011 after Leon Panetta stepped down to become the Defense Secretary. And perhaps most significant, Morell helped lead the CIA’s successful pursuit of Osama bin Laden.
Since 2010, Morell has been the CIA’s number-two man, an essential careerist who, more than the directors he has served, understands how the agency works. “Mike knows the place. He just knows it cold,” says a former CIA officer who worked with and likes Morell. The spokesman for the National Security Council said recently that Morell has “developed a very close relationship with the President” and “earned the President’s trust” during the bin Laden hunt.
Given his résumé and credentials, not to mention the press buzz he’s getting, Morell might seem an odds-on favorite to replace fallen ex-general Petraeus. But don’t bet money on it—at least not a lot of money. Personnel predictions are inherently risky and often foolish in this town. But if history is the guide, President Obama will go outside the CIA’s ranks to select its next leader.
In the past four decades, a career CIA employee has been tapped for director only twice. Most recently, you have to go back to 1991, when President George H.W. Bush nominated a 48-year-old CIA lifer named Robert Gates for director of Central Intelligence, or DCI, as the job was called then. (He’d been nominated once before, in 1987, but withdrew his name amid political controversy over his role in the Iran-Contra affair.) Gates joined the intelligence agency straight out of college and was promoted all the way to deputy director in the Reagan administration. He was the first employee in the CIA’s then-44-year history to rise from entry-level employee to the top job.
Before Gates, William Colby was the last career employee to become DCI, in 1973. Colby served in World War II with the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s precursor. After a brief and unsatisfying career as a lawyer and government official, he joined up with the newly formed intelligence agency in 1950.
The CIA’s leaders tend to come from a variety of disciplines, including the military, law enforcement, and business. Some have considerable depth of experience in the spy business; some not a lick.
The last director who could legitimately claim to have strong ties to the agency was George Tenet, who was nominated by Bill Clinton in 1997. Tenet had only been at the agency for two years, most of that time as the deputy director. Prior to that, he was a staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a White House national security staffer.
Tenet was no career spy, but he was widely seen as a tireless cheerleader for the CIA. He was an extroverted back-slapper who openly professed great fondness for his employees. But he also liked to make his political bosses happy, so much so that, in the estimation of many experts, Tenet was blinded to the weakness in the CIA’s claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
“Under the enormous pressures he faced after 9/11, his one flaw, his all-consuming desire to please his superiors, became a fault line,” author Tim Weiner writes in his expansive history of the CIA, Legacy of Ashes. “Under his leadership, the agency produced the worst body of work in its long history,” a flawed intelligence estimate on Iraq’s supposed weapons program.
After US forces in Iraq failed to find any weapons, the White House pointed the finger at the CIA, where career CIA employees turned on their political masters. Internecine skirmishes over who deserved the lion’s share of blame for the botched calls spilled over into public recriminations. When Tenet stepped down, in 2004, the White House saw the CIA as a restive tribe of intelligence careerists who needed to be controlled and kept from embarrassing the President.
Since then, two occupants of the Oval Office have opted to search far afield from Langley for a CIA chief. The past four directors have been outsiders. They are men with political or institutional gravitas, but whose connections to the agency are tenuous.
To assert power after Tenet, Bush sent in Porter Goss. Goss had served for about ten years in the 1960s as a CIA operations officer, but left the spy business for a career in politics. When he returned in 2004, it was as an antagonist—Goss was the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a CIA oversight body. He brought along a retinue of Capitol Hill sycophants, whom CIA employees derisively dubbed “the Gosslings,” and exercised management by fiat.
Goss’s 20-month tour is generally regarded as a disaster. His staff made enemies of senior CIA employees, several of whom quit. But when it came time to fix the mess, Bush turned again to another outsider, General Michael Hayden, who was one of the country’s most successful military intelligence officers but had never worked for the CIA.
Hayden had run the National Security Agency, so he knew how to manage a vast intelligence apparatus. And his loyalty to the Bush White House was unquestionable. His tenure was less tumultuous than his predecessor. Hayden kept the job until the first few weeks of the Obama administration—he even lobbied to stay.
After winning the presidency in 2008, Obama considered nominating one of his top campaign advisers, John Brennan, to succeed Hayden. Brennan was a former CIA officer. Like Morell, he’d held a number of important senior posts. But when political opposition to Brennan’s involvement in Bush-era counterterrorism policies scuttled his nomination, Obama turned once again to an outsider: Leon Panetta, a retired congressman and White House chief of staff whose most significant link to intelligence was sitting in on some of President Clinton’s daily CIA briefings.
Panetta succeeded in his new role not because he’s an intelligence expert, but because he’s a shrewd manager and a deft political tactician. He balanced loyalty to the President with support for his employees, and assuaged the concerns of lawmakers who feared the agency had gone off the track during the Bush administration. When Panetta became the Secretary of Defense last year and Obama picked Petraeus to take his place at Langley, it was another indication that the President prizes organizational competency over spycraft in his director. The retired general was a decorated and revered leader who, in his role as a military commander, had worked closely with the CIA on global counterterrorism operations. It didn’t matter that he’d never been an intelligence officer.
Nothing has changed in that regard. The CIA has evolved, since 9/11, into a global paramilitary organization that is adept at tracking down and killing terrorists. It’s the career employees who do that job—with lethal efficiency—but that doesn’t mean one of their own has to run the show. Indeed, most presidents have preferred they don’t. So unless Obama plans to make a significant departure from history, and his own practice, Morell will not be the next director. Morell’s qualifications are undeniably strong—but being a spy isn’t a requirement to run the CIA. And it never has been.