Breaking: Morell Out as Biden's CIA Chief

Critics accused the former acting director of being an apologist for CIA 'torture'

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Michael Morell, long considered a shoo-in to be President-elect Joseph Biden’s CIA director, has withdrawn his candidacy after weeks of sharp criticism from critics who painted him as an apologist for torture carried out under agency’s counterterrorism interrogation program.

News of Morell’s alleged withdrawal was first reported in the anonymous “Dead Drop” column at The Cipher Brief, a publication by and for intelligence insiders.  

“Transition and Capitol Hill observers felt that had he been nominated, Morell could have eventually won approval— but in the end, Morell apparently decided that he did not want to put the incoming administration or the CIA through a re-litigation of the enhanced interrogation program which ended about 15 years ago,” the Dead Drop wrote.

A Biden transition spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

But former CIA Deputy Chief of Staff Nick Shapiro,  who has fielded media inquiries for Morell, suggested it was true.

“I’m not confirming for anyone but I’m telling everyone who asks that I’m not calling up the Cipher Brief and asking them to correct it,” Shapiro told SpyTalk in an email.

Among Morell’s prominent critics was Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, who in late November publicly warned Biden not to nominate him.

“No torture apologist can be confirmed as CIA director. It's a nonstarter," Wyden told CNN.

Another was Mark Fallon, a former director of the Criminal Investigative Task Force at the US Military's Guantanamo detention camp. “While the ‘leftwing’ has been vocal in their criticism, for many of us it’s not about left or right, it’s about right and wrong!” Fallon tweeted upon news of Morell’s withdrawal.

If Morell is out, the door would seem to be open for David S. Cohen, a former CIA deputy director and favorite of Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, to run the CIA. Cohen “helped set up the joint operation among the agency, the FBI. and the National Security Agency that examined Russian interference in the 2016 election,” the New York Times reported on December 2.

As SpyTalk reported on December 3, Cohen distinguished himself at the Treasury Department as a “dirty money sleuth.” 

“As Assistant Secretary, then Undersecretary, of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence from 2009 to 2015, Cohen reveled in plunging deep into the subterranean passages of international money laundering, shining a harsh light on militant networks lurking there and discovering and emptying their war chests.”

Other intelligence veterans mentioned as candidates for the job include retired Marine Corps General Vincent Stewart, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and retired senior CIA operations executives Darrell Blocker and Justin Jackson, a former deputy director of the National Clandestine Service.

Note to readers: In the first version of this story, we incorrectly credited The Cipher Brief’s Walter Pincus with breaking the Morell withdrawal. Pincus writes the Fine Print column, not Dead Drop.

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