One of President-elect Joe Biden’s initial frontrunners to be CIA director, Mike Morell, is facing increasingly complicated prospects as his potential nomination faces growing opposition, according to multiple sources familiar with transition discussions.
Morell, who was deputy CIA director under President Barack Obama, now faces a steeper climb in the face of Democratic opposition to his record over the CIA’s interrogation tactics during the George W. Bush administration. Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, publicly accused Morell of being a “torture apologist” – a reference to Morell’s past suggestion that the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh tactics were effective – and said Morell’s nomination would be a “nonstarter.”
The message for the Biden transition team was clear: Give us someone else to consider.
Other Senate Democrats, including Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Pat Leahy of Vermont, have also privately expressed concerns to Biden’s team about Morell’s record on torture, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
No clear frontrunner
With Morell’s prospects falling, there does not appear to be one clear frontrunner to be chosen as Biden’s pick to head up the CIA, sources said. Biden’s first round of personnel announcements introducing key members of his national security team was noteworthy in that both CIA director and defense secretary picks were missing from that list.
The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As CNN has previously reported, the Biden transition team is considering several other individuals for the important role of CIA director, including David Cohen, another former deputy CIA director under Obama. Others in the mix include Vincent Stewart, a former leader of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Marine general; Jeh Johnson, former secretary of Homeland Security under Obama who is also being considered for Defense secretary; former Obama senior adviser Lisa Monaco; and Sue Gordon, the former principal deputy director of national intelligence under President Donald Trump who spent decades at the CIA.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has told Biden’s team that Morell is an acceptable selection, according to a source familiar with the matter.
While Warner had early expectations Morell would likely be Biden’s pick, he has not given Morell an explicit endorsement, as he’s been fine with all of the potential directors in consideration, the source said.
Another key senator on the nomination could be Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chaired the Intelligence Committee when it fought the Obama administration in 2014 to release a partially redacted summary of its report on the CIA’s use of torture, which harshly criticized the Bush-era CIA program. “I have to do more work before I answer that,” Feinstein said Thursday when asked about Morell.
The pushback from Wyden over Morell’s nomination underscores the balancing act the Biden team faces putting together its Cabinet, as it faces pressure from liberal lawmakers and advocacy groups – not to mention Republicans who are already threatening to try to block some of Biden’s picks. The selection of CIA director will play into the Biden team’s larger puzzle of nominees, including his attorney general and defense secretary picks, as Biden seeks to put together a diverse Cabinet and satisfy various Democratic constituencies.
But the indecision from the Biden team on its CIA pick – and its reaction to Wyden’s comments – has frustrated some former intelligence officials who believe Morell is clearly the best choice for the job and that his candidacy should not be derailed because of criticism from one Democratic senator.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA officer who oversaw operations in Europe and Russia before retiring last summer, has made clear he’d like to see Morell get the job and defended him against the criticism, arguing Morell has credibility inside the CIA for standing by his people.
‘Zero reason to apologize’
“It is unfortunate that Morell is dragged into this. I worked with him closely for years. I never heard him once advocate torture,” Polymeropoulos said.
“What he did do, however, was always defend our people as they participated in a program that had DOJ and (the president’s) blessing, as well as had been briefed to the Hill,” he added. “So Morell did what any leader must do – defend his people. There is zero reason to apologize for that.”
If he was nominated, Morell wouldn’t be the first CIA director nominee to face questions about torture. Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel, was confirmed by the Republican-led Senate in 2018 following a contentious confirmation process over her direct role in the CIA interrogation program. Six Democrats, including Warner, joined Republicans to back Haspel in the 54-45 confirmation vote.
Since Wyden started his campaign against Morell, the former CIA deputy director’s explanation has only highlighted his conflicted position on torture, or the so-called “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” the CIA used on al Qaeda detainees.
The closest Morell has come to calling those techniques torture, a spokesman for Morell indicated, was the 2016 documentary “The Spymasters” in which Morell says, “If somebody waterboarded me would I come back and say I was tortured? Yes.”
In the same film, Morell talks about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation techniques and how after using them on a senior al Qaeda detainee, he revealed where other terrorist operators were.
“Should a country, the United States of America, which stands for human rights in the world, which stands for human dignity, probably more than any country – do those techniques to another human being?” he asks. “That’s a really reasonable question.”
Morell’s spokesman, Nick Shapiro said Morell only learned about the techniques being used four years after they went into effect.
“Morell believes there were many mistakes with the EIT program and has written extensively on them,” Shapiro said.
CNN’s Lauren Fox contributed to this report