No doubt about it, Michael Morell is an Agency man. As the CIA’s current Director for Intelligence, Morell has put in some 30 years and counting and has done an impressive job of climbing the ranks in the intelligence world while keeping critics at bay, no small feat in today’s controversial intelligence environment.
A close acquaintance (who, no surprise, doesn’t want to be identified) tells CNN that a college professor encouraged Morell to apply for a position with the CIA when he was in his early 20s. As the story goes, he was subsequently invited to D.C. for an interview and jumped at the chance. Apparently, a young Mr. Morell, the son of an auto worker, hadn’t had many opportunities to travel while he was growing up, so a free trip to the nation’s capital seemed a no-brainer.
It’s fair to conclude that Morell liked what he saw, and apparently so did the Agency, as he joined the CIA right out of college in 1980. As an economic analyst with a starting salary of just over $15,000, it was his passion for Asian issues that would eventually lead him to take on various roles including that of Branch Chief, Division Chief and eventually, the role of director of the Office of Asia, Pacific and Latin American analysis. Over the years, Morell continued to impress, earning the respect of colleagues along the way as a straight-shooter, a serious, studied man.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Morell was with President Bush. He was working that day as the President’s Daily Briefer and remained with the President as the horrors of the day unfolded. Think about that one for a second, Morell was the man with the President’s ear, and his thumb on the pulse of the intelligence community as the United States was under the worst terrorist attack in its history.
Few would argue that 9/11 changed everything in the intelligence world. Some of the Agency’s more rugged personalities, like Cofer Black, came out swinging. You remember Black, he’s the guy the White House called “the flies across the eyeballs guy” after a meeting in which he briefed the President on the Agency’s capabilities saying, “when this is over, the bad guys will have flies walking across their eyeballs.” The world was witnessing the beginning of an aggressive U.S. campaign against terrorism.
Black met Morell back in 1999 then their jobs – both in the area of counterterrorism – overlapped. Black was impressed by what he saw, describing Morell as “very accomplished, very smart, and well liked”.
Black apparently wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Morell received the CIA Director’s Award that year for outstanding service to the Agency, an honor that would be repeated a decade later.
“He really is exceptional,” says Black. “He knows the CIA organization inside and out as well as both the intelligence community and needs of consumers of intelligence.”
From 2001 until 2003, Morell served as the Director of Strategic Programs, responsible for finding ways to make the Agency’s analytic product better.
John McLaughlin, who was Deputy Director of the Agency at the time, liked the savvy up and comer. “Mike is hard-driving,” said McLaughlin, who later became the CIA’s Acting Director. “He is broadly experienced and holds people to very high standards.”
In 2003, Morell took his first field assignment overseas. It lasted just three years, which is probably the point that draws the most criticism when it comes to his new appointment as the Agency’s #2 man. Can someone with such limited operational experience be effective in that role? (More on that later.)
It was in these years after 9/11 that the Agency was facing its biggest test. There were ongoing discussions about the direction the Agency was taking; about its diminished role with the creation of the Director of National Intelligence; and about whether the Agency’s human intelligence capabilities were sufficient. A presidential commission report in 2005 made it clear that it was human intelligence that had failed Americans on two counts: 1) on the al Qaeda network and 2) whether Iraq really did have weapons of mass destruction.) There was also the controversial tenure of Porter Goss as CIA Director from late 2004 – 2006. Several veterans of the Agency left, among them the second-highest man in the clandestine service, Robert Richer.
Over time, Richer had come to admire Morell for his thorough understanding of the issues. He also noticed Morell’s seemingly natural ability to bring two sides together in a building that can at times be “incestuous” when it comes to people talking about people.
“I know no one on the inside who doesn’t like Mike,” said Richer. “He’s good people. He is really respected on the Hill; he’s good at bridging gaps.”
In 2006, Morell became Deputy Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Established in 2004 under the Intelligence Reform Legislation, the NCTC was created to make sure the country’s 16 intelligence agencies were in fact, working together and sharing information when it came to potential terrorists, or terrorist plots. The job proved an opportunity for Morell to show his diplomatic chops and help bridge some gaps between agencies that were so clearly brought to light post 9/11. His role again, was one of diplomacy, leadership and analysis.
It was a short-lived position. Just three months later, CIA Director Michael Hayden would lure him back to the building to become the CIA’s first Associate Deputy Director.
“He was especially talented,” said Hayden. “Michael kept the trains running on time when the Director is often pulled outside into the policy swirl.”
Morell was the strategic-thinker to Hayden’s number two (and later Panetta’s number two), Stephen Kappes. Kappes filled Hayden’s operational need, and Morell would be the guy to fill the long-term planning need.
“Michael shepherded the strategic plan that we had, getting the Agency on a path that made it adaptable to the challenges of the future,” said Hayden.
The new job placed Morell across the hall from Hayden and Kappes, and made him particularly well-suited to make necessary changes inside the Agency. Hayden relied on Morell to take care of disciplinary matters. Morell was the Agency’s new Mr. Accountability.
There is little debating that Morell’s rise to the top came about without a lot of operational experience, but the Agency bats away even the mild suggestion that Morell may not have the operations background it needs at a time when efforts are so closely focused on counterterrorism.
“He’s been a strong proponent of integrating analysis and operations, something that has led to major intelligence successes such as the discovery of Iran’s undeclared uranium enrichment facility and Syria’s covert nuclear reactor,” says CIA spokesman George Little. “Fusing those two vital aspects of our intelligence mission will remain a top priority for him as Deputy Director.”
McLaughlin, who also hails from an analysis background, is among those who brush the criticism aside.
“Someone ALWAYS objects to senior appointments like on some grounds; if it’s not depth in a single area like counterterrorism or operations, then it could lack of breadth at a time when the Agency is dealing with perhaps the broadest array of issues in its history. Morell has breadth and depth as someone who has worked everything from international economics to counterterrorism,” says McLaughlin.
Today, as the Director for Intelligence, Morell begins his day by finding out what threats are lurking before you’re probably even awake. He attends the Director’s daily briefing followed by the senior staff meetings. The rest of the day gets divided up with anything from reviewing information for the President’s Daily Brief (more affectionately referred to as the PDB), to representing the Agency on the Hill. Morell has been serving as the Agency’s point man on counterterrorism analysis at time that’s been particularly turbulent since the Christmas day bombing attempt.
It will be another challenge altogether to move into the Agency’s number two spot when Kappes retires. Even with the impressive and wide-ranging respect Morell garners from current and former employees alike, critics will be looking for the chink in the armor as the Agency and the country face the battles ahead.
– CNN Senior National Security Correspondent Pam Benson contributed to this report