Michael Morell deserves to lead Biden’s CIA
A few years back, I was serving as chief of the CIA’s Middle East Division when I received a secure phone call from Michael Morell’s executive assistant. Morell, then the CIA’s deputy director, was visiting our colleagues in the overseas field. A last-minute change of itinerary meant he was now planning a stopover in North Africa, which was part of my geographic area of responsibility.
I caught a flight the next day for my first visit to this North African country and a rendezvous with Morell, who introduced me to our most senior government liaison counterparts.
Morell understood that personal relationships are what drive intelligence operations. By including me as a senior member of his team in substantive operational discussions, he turbo-boosted my throw weight with our North African colleagues. I went on to visit the country three more times and built upon our partnership on counterterrorism and other issues that are so important to America’s security.
Morell now is among candidates on President-elect Joe Biden’s short list to serve as director of the CIA.
The stakes could not be higher. The United States faces a myriad of complex, wickedly challenging threats to our national security. The CIA director must ensure that the agency produces and accurately analyzes sensitive source-reporting on the hardest of targets such as Iran, North Korea, Russia and China, and topics including nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity and transnational terrorism.
I’ll admit to having some predisposed, but justified, bias in favor of Morell. I traveled with him to war zones in the Middle East and South Asia, and attended planning meetings in his office and conference room. I got to know him well on a personal level. Known for his extraordinary intellect, Morell has the heart and soul to match.
I witnessed firsthand Morell’s exceptional commitment, decision-making and ability to empower and delegate to subordinates. He always made a point of telling the president what he needed to know — even when it was not what he wanted to hear, including during the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden, for which Morell was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal.
For Morell, analytical precision was the CIA’s sacred duty.
Morell presided over countless standing room-only meetings, usually prior to going Downtown to brief the president and his national security team on the CIA’s operations and its analysis. He moderated, asked the hard questions, prompted debate, challenged his own assumptions. Most importantly, he never failed to consider all of the viewpoints in the room, without making distinctions based on rank or job title.
Morell retired from the CIA in 2013 after a 33-year career, during which he served as deputy director and twice as acting director. He enabled a diverse and inclusive environment, not only because of his moral and ethical standards but also because he understood there was no better process for conducting the CIA’s mission.
The president rightly focuses on the CIA’s intelligence product, which highlights the greatest threats to our national security, assesses options for countering those threats, and measures how well policy decisions achieve the mission of keeping America safe. But serving effectively as the agency’s director is first and foremost about making the right organizational and personnel decisions inside the CIA; these make behind-enemy-lines spying and sophisticated analysis possible.
Having immersed himself in cutting-edge technology in the private sector after retiring from CIA, Morell is poised to power the innovation on which the agency’s elite espionage and analytical tradecraft depend.
During a visit to a Middle East war zone, where our officers were operating in austere conditions, Morell rallied the team for an all-hands meeting. He spoke passionately about our mission, our officers’ patriotism and their families’ sacrifices. He recognized we were an all-volunteer force who could be doing other things with our lives. He eloquently articulated the CIA’s strategic vision and how, together, we could drive forward to success.
Serving as CIA director is all about enabling a brave, dedicated and talented workforce to achieve its potential. As President John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
That’s why, in the best interests of our nation’s security, the CIA’s mission would be extraordinarily well served with the return of one of its most accomplished senior leaders in a seamless, speedy transition back to his life’s calling.
Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.