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
during the bin Laden hunt.
Given his résumé and credentials, not to mention the
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.
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
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
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
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.