“Whenever someone involved in the rough and tumble of Washington decides to move on, there is speculation in various quarters about the ‘real reason,'” departing CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell wrote in a memo to employees Wednesday. “But when I say that it is time for my family, nothing could be more real than that.”
That unsolicited disclaimer in and of itself piques the curiosity of Beltway reporters who know that there’s usually layers of subtext behind a personnel shuffle in this administration.
Many resignations and appointments have been about President Obama finding a thank-you spot for those who have done campaign time or otherwise helped propel his terms in office. This is especially evident over at the State Department, where Obama’s traveling press secretary during the 2012 campaign, Jen Psaki, is now the department’s spokeswoman despite no foreign policy experience; where Obama’s Jewish outreach director in 2008 and fundraiser Daniel B. Shapiro was named ambassador to Israel in 2011; where Ira Forman, a longtime Dem operative and Obama’s Jewish outreach director for his 2012 campaign, just received a special envoy post; and where Democratic political player Joe Torsella received an ambassador title and the task of managing the U.S. pocketbook at the United Nations despite no State Department experience.
Other personnel shifts have been about drawing loyalists closer to his side. When UN Ambassador Susan Rice faced a rocky road with the Senate after her nomination to be secretary of State, speculation began that her withdrawal from the nod would be rewarded with an appointment as national security advisor.
Indeed, current NSA Tom Donilon told reporters at the China summit in Palm Springs last weekend that the conversation with Obama “with respect to my retiring from this current job began really at the end of last year.” Rice withdrew her secretary of State nomination in December.
“This has been carefully considered,” Donilon added. “It has been the subject of multiple conversations between me and the President and me and Ambassador Rice, and it was the right time.”
But the Obama shuffles aren’t necessarily all about loyalty as they are about moving the chess pieces into place — whether to give cover to past administration actions or chart a new, likely controversial course in policy.
Morell’s departure from the CIA came as a surprise to many — he and new CIA Director John Brennan are friends from years of service together at Langley — but the news quickly got pulled by the undertow of the news cycle, including scandals and Thursday’s announcement on the Syria red line.
Brennan, like Morell, has a lengthy history at the CIA, where he was once station chief in Riyadh and became deputy director in March 2001. He was the first director at the National Counterterrorism Center in the office created by George W. Bush but left a year later for the private sector. As soon as Obama was elected, the new president tried to move Brennan into the director’s office at the CIA, but when his nomination ran into headwinds Obama instead appointed him counterterrorism adviser to avert a Senate confirmation fight.
Brennan donated to Obama’s first campaign, but his connection to the then-senator goes beyond money.
In March 2008, Brennan was president and CEO of The Analysis Corp., which was accused of snooping into the passport files of Hillary Clinton and John McCain while under contract with the State Department; lower-level employees were fired or disciplined. At the time Brennan was already an adviser on Obama’s campaign, and the candidate reacted with public indignation to his passport file reportedly being accessed as well. “And when you have not just one but a series of attempts to tap into people’s personal records, that’s a problem not just for me but for how our government is functioning,” Obama said.
As an administration adviser Brennan was still campaigning, delivering an April 30, 2012, address on Obama’s counterterrorism strategy that laid out the groundwork for the campaign’s foreign policy narrative: “…If the decade before 9/11 was the time of al-Qaeda’s rise, and the decade after 9/11 was the time of its decline, then I believe this decade will be the one that sees its demise,” he said, crediting in large part “the comprehensive counterterrorism strategy being directed by President Obama.”
In May 2012, CIA officials signed off on the Associated Press’ now-infamous scoop about the agency’s thwarting of an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plot to use a second-generation underwear bomb to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner around the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. That undermined the campaign narrative that al-Qaeda was “on the run” and ultimately led to the Justice Department seizing scores of AP phone records. The CIA director in charge at the time of the approval of the AP story, David Petraeus, was forced to resign two days after Obama’s re-election when his extramarital affair was revealed.
With the Senate successfully pushing Rice to the side and lawmakers torn for a while over controversy surrounding the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, Brennan’s nomination slipped through the Senate 63-34.
Morell, on the other hand, has been a career CIA officer dedicated to the agency mission, not any one political leader.
He was, though, integral to George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism mission, delivering the daily intelligence briefing to the president and assisting CIA Director George Tenet before continuing to move up the ranks: deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center, associate deputy director of the CIA from 2006 until 2008, head of the Directorate of Intelligence, then deputy director in May 2010. When Leon Panetta was pulled over to the Pentagon in July 2011, Morell filled in as acting director for almost two months. When Petraeus got the boot, Morell took the reins again until Obama was able to move Brennan through.
“When I was confirmed as CIA Director, one of the things that I was most looking forward to upon my return to the Agency was the opportunity to work side-by-side once again with Michael Morell,” Brennan said in the Wednesday note to employees. “…As much as I would selfishly like to keep Michael right where he is for as long as possible, he has decided to retire to spend more time with his family and to pursue other professional opportunities.”
“In many respects, Michael has come to personify the strengths and qualities of this great organization, and it is difficult for me to imagine CIA without Michael’s exceptionally sharp mind, tremendous energy, and absolute dedication to mission,” Brennan continued. “But I am comforted by the fact that Michael will be able to spend more time with his wonderful family.”
In his statement tacked onto the end of Brennan’s announcement, Morell said he’s “passionate about two things in this world—the Agency and my family.”
“And while I have given everything I have to the Central Intelligence Agency and its vital mission for a third of a century, it is now time for me to give everything I have to my family,” he said. Morell has three college-aged children.
“I will miss the people—the talented and dedicated officers on the senior leadership team, my colleagues on the Deputies Committee with whom I have spent countless hours in the Situation Room, and, most of all, the CIA workforce—the heroes of this place, the people at the pointy end of the spear, the patriots who do the work of keeping the country safe every day,” he added.
Morell’s note highlighted how he was “at the side of President Bush on that horrific day in September 2001” and “at President Obama’s side as the United States brought Bin Ladin to justice in May 2011—and all the ups and downs in between.”
Does his departure have to do with one of those in-between days?
On the chess-board angle, Obama would be moving an ally without a day of CIA experience into the deputy director role at a time when he wants Brennan to be reshaping the war on terror strategy to a pre-9/11 mindset — something that may not sit well with the rank and file who live the threats day in and day out, such as the reported CIA employees who have wanted to come forward in the Benghazi scandal but have been prevented from doing so.
Obama first nominated Avril Haines, who worked for John Kerry at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming a deputy legal adviser at the State Department and joining the White House counsel’s office in 2010, to the post of legal adviser at the State Department. On Thursday, he withdrew the April 18 nomination and resubmitted her name for the CIA.
Haines, working with Brennan, helped craft those new talking points that Obama laid out in his May speech on counterterrorism strategy and drone use.
Days before that address, the White House dumped more than 100 pages of Benghazi talking points emails — pointing blame at the CIA, not the State Department, for the controversial edits.
“I think there has been ample demonstration by the facts of the evolution of the talking points, the role that Ambassador Rice played in conveying the information that Director Clapper, that Mike Morell, that senior members of the intelligence community have made very clear were the assessments of the intelligence community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters last week.
But Morell had also been talking to Congress.
On May 20, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said he had talked “somewhat confidentially” with Morell about the emails.
“His reports were that the analysts gave these talking points. He did edit them and then they went up the chain,” McCaul said. “I find it hard to believe, just based upon common sense, that there wasn’t some machinations going on in the State Department to change the theme of this to be not one of an act of terrorism, but rather a video.”
“And so I think that’s our ongoing examination in the Congress about Benghazi. This is — these are going to be tough questions. Now, I think he’s testifying before the Intelligence Committee. Always in secret. But I’m on Foreign Affairs; they will be out and open,” McCaul added.
Morell testimony is not on the House Foreign Affairs Committee schedule. He leaves office Aug. 9.
“When you look at this train, you still have to ask the question, how did they go from the correct information to the incorrect information?” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said after the emails were released. “And isn’t 100 pages or more a pushback on the CIA — effectively telling the CIA, you’ve got to change your story?”
In late October, Petraeus quietly slipped away to Tripoli to conduct his own investigation into the Benghazi attacks. In the first week of November, his affair had been laid bare and he was out at the CIA.
A resigned official can still be asked to come voluntarily or subpoenaed before a congressional committee. But a resigned official, as seen with the Benghazi whistleblowers, carries the stigma of sour grapes if they don’t carry their administration’s water at a hearing: after former deputy chief of mission in Libya Gregory Hicks testified before the House Oversight panel in May, critics dismissed his retaliation claims as bitterness over not getting the promotion he wanted.