When President-elect Joe Biden formally introduced members of his national security team on Tuesday, there were significant gaps on stage: proposed leaders for the Pentagon and the CIA.
At both agencies, Biden is considering contenders with deep experience in their fields and a track record in Washington – but some of his candidates are also spurring dissent from corners of the Democratic Party that could make the President-elect’s choices a more complicated matter.
For weeks, observers have speculated that Biden would entrust the Department of Defense to the veteran Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, the most seasoned defense expert among the names being floated, though she has been opposed by progressives.
After Biden named another woman, Avril Haines, to be his Director of National Intelligence on Tuesday, attention turned to who will lead the Central Intelligence Agency. There’s no discussion of keeping the current director, Gina Haspel, who has had a fraught relationship with President Donald Trump and is expected to resign on Inauguration Day, if she isn’t fired before then. But one of Biden’s reported candidates to replace her has already been denounced as a “torture apologist.”
A decision on the nominee for Secretary of Defense is expected to be made in early December and as soon as early next week, transition advisers say, with at least two other potential candidates still in contention besides Flournoy.
Transition advisers say options presented to Biden include Jeh Johnson, the former secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. Some former officials close to the selection process believe Johnson is also in contention for the position of Attorney General, underscoring the notion that the Biden team is still trying to fit various contenders into the Cabinet puzzle.
Another name being floated to lead the defense department: Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and a decorated veteran who was wounded in combat.
Two transition advisers cautioned against reading anything into the fact that Flournoy was not included in the national security team announced this week in Wilmington.
But it was also not immediately clear why she was not on stage with the nominees for Secretary of State, Director of National Intelligence and Homeland Security Secretary, given that she has been a well-known quantity, a leader in the defense field for years and has been widely seen as a leading candidate to lead Biden’s Pentagon.
One transition adviser told CNN that Cabinet members should be viewed as pieces of a larger puzzle, rather than simply a series of individual decisions. And Biden and his team were taking additional time piecing together other selections before announcing his Defense Secretary pick.
A transition adviser said Flournoy’s well known differences with Biden over the years on Iraq and Afghanistan policy were not a factor in the decision making process, pointing to the President-elect’s admonition on Tuesday.
“They’ll tell me what I need to know, not what I want to know – what I need to know,” Biden said, flanked by the first wave of Cabinet nominees.
If Flournoy is the nominee, she is expected to prioritize spending on future technologies and restoring the civilian-military balance in the Pentagon to ensure the most critical decisions and policy discussions are under the control of civilian officials.
Her case for the job received a boost on Wednesday from two Democratic subcommittee chairs on the House Armed Services Committee.
“Flournoy would be the first woman nominated to be Secretary of Defense. As the Department struggles with toxic workplace culture even as it opens special operations and the combat arms to women, breaking this glass ceiling is long overdue,” the statement from Chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, Jackie Speier, and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Jim Langevin said.
The two leading contenders to fill Haspel’s shoes, according to people familiar with the names being talked about by the transition team, are the former CIA acting Director Michael Morell and former national security adviser Tom Donilon.
Morell isn’t known to have a close relationship with Biden but is a 30-year veteran of the CIA and well-respected by the agency rank and file. Donilon, having led the National Security Council at the White House, worked more closely with Biden and his team during the Obama administration.
A transition team official declined to comment on the candidates and process.
Contact between Biden’s transition team and potential candidates has been minimal, leaving them in the dark with where they stand, according to people familiar with the outreach. Both candidates, and their records, are well known to the president-elect and those helping him make the decision.
The eventual pick will have to first get voted on by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Biden’s team has consulted with some key Democrats on Capitol Hill regarding the CIA director job, according to a source familiar with those discussions who told CNN that several names were discussed, including Morell’s.
On Wednesday, Committee Democrat Ron Wyden stepped up his criticism of Morell whom he called “a torture apologist” and a “non-starter” for CIA director. “Mike Morell wrote that torture was effective and moral,” Wyden tweeted. “He’s wrong on both counts.”
Wyden was referring to the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, or EIT, that were used on Morell’s watch at the agency. In an interview with the CBS’ 60 Minutes in 2013, Morell called them “wrong” and “inconsistent with American values.”
But he also wrote in his 2015 book, “The Great War of Our Time,” that while he was “troubled” by waterboarding on al Qaeda, “I believe that waterboarding was one of the two most effective of all the harsh techniques.”
“Morell was not in any way involved with the creation of the EIT program and he did not even learn about it until 2006, four years after it started,” said Morell spokesman Nick Shapiro. “He publicly stated in a 2013 ’60 (Minutes)’ interview and wrote in his 2015 book that he believed waterboarding is indeed torture.”
Donilon wouldn’t come without his own complications.
As a manager, he was known for creating an intense and tough work environment. Before joining the Obama administration, Donilon was a top Fannie Mae executive for six years during the housing boom, leaving before the company imploded and was forced to pay $400 million to the federal government for misstated earnings during his time there.
Since his time in the Obama administration, Donilon has worked for the financial firm BlackRock.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Nicky Robertson contributed to this story.