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Former National Security adviser Tom Donilon is currently chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute. File photo: Reuters

Politico | Joe Biden leans toward Tom Donilon as CIA chief

  • Veteran diplomat Tom Donilon was national security adviser to former president Barack Obama
  • Biden is also said to be considering Michael Morell, who was the CIA’s deputy director
Joe Biden

This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Nahal Toosi, Natasha Bertrand, Lara Seligman and Bryan Bender on on November 25, 2020.

US President-elect Joe Biden is leaning toward naming former Obama administration national security adviser Tom Donilon as his CIA director, two people familiar with the situation said.

The choice for the spymaster role is one of the toughest facing Biden as he puts together his national security team. The CIA has found itself uncomfortably embroiled in domestic politics under Donald Trump, accused by the outgoing president and his allies of seeking to tar him as an agent of Moscow and representing a “deep state” bent on undermining his policies. Whomever Biden picks will also confront an emboldened Russia and an increasingly aggressive China, along with transnational threats like climate change and pandemics.

While Donilon is said to be the front-runner at the moment, Michael Morell, who has previously led the CIA on an acting basis, remains a top competitor. Both men offer experience under intense pressure and familiarity with the national security bureaucracy at the highest levels. But each man has some baggage: Morell has been accused of defending the CIA’s past use of torture, which has earned him the opposition of influential Democatic senators. Donilon has some detractors as well, including former staff members who say he can be an unusually tough boss who demands an excessive amount of work for little clear purpose.

Another name being floated for CIA is Jeh Johnson, the former Obama-era Homeland Security secretary. Johnson, a former federal prosecutor, served as the Pentagon’s general counsel during Obama’s first term – trying, but failing, to shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It’s not clear how serious his standing is in the CIA hunt, however, and he’s also being mentioned for other posts, including defence secretary and attorney general. Johnson is on Lockheed Martin’s board of directors, a fact that does not endear him to progressives, who want Biden to cut defence spending.

Johnson, in an email, declined to comment on whether he’s discussed any of the positions with the Biden team. A Biden transition team spokesperson also declined to comment for this story, as did Donilon.

President-elect Joe Biden stands with his nominees for his national security team. Photo; Reuters

Earlier this week, Biden unveiled his choices for several top national security slots, including Avril Haines as his nominee for director of national intelligence. The CIA remains the heavyweight among the country’s 17 spy agencies, and its employees often chafe at the DNI’s somewhat amorphous oversight role. But Haines is widely respected within the national security community, and her views are being considered as Biden weighs options for CIA chief, according to two people close to the process. One of the people said Haines would probably prefer Morell, who hasn’t been her boss in the past, unlike Donilon whom Haines worked under on the National Security Council staff.

Morell’s comments about the CIA’s past use of “enhanced interrogation” procedures have been interpreted by many on the left as defending the morality of torture. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has warned Biden against nominating Morell for the CIA.

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“No torture apologist can be confirmed as CIA director. It’s a non-starter,” Wyden told The Daily Beast, which also reported that Donilon and Johnson are under consideration to various degrees. It’s not clear where the two leaders of that committee, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democrat Senator Mark Warner, who would play key roles in any confirmation process, are leaning.

If Biden picks Morell, he’ll be crossing a “red line” for progressives in his party, many of whom have been supportive of him and his Cabinet choices so far despite feeling he is too centrist, a Capitol Hill aide to a progressive lawmaker told POLITICO.


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“One basic thing that we should be able to expect is you’re not going to be appointing torture defenders to a senior position or any position,” the aide said.

Former CIA deputy chief of staff Nick Shapiro, who now serves as a spokesperson for Morell, said in a statement that “Morell was not in any way involved with the creation of the EIT programme and he did not even learn about it until 2006, four years after it started,” using an acronym for the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” programme. “He publicly stated in a 2013 60 Minutes interview and wrote in his 2015 book that he believed waterboarding is indeed torture. Morell believes there were many mistakes with the EIT programme and has written extensively on them.”

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Shapiro’s statement, however, glossed over key disagreements between many at the agency and critics of the torture programme, particularly the Senate investigators tasked with probing whether the tactics were legal and justified. Morell wrote in his book The Great War of Our Time that while he was troubled by waterboarding, he also believed it was “one of the two most effective of all the harsh techniques (the other being sleep deprivation).” The Senate’s extensive report on the torture programme found that the “enhanced” interrogation tactics, including waterboarding, were not effective in eliciting intelligence.

One factor working in Morell’s favour is that he is already well known within the agency, having served both as deputy director and acting director twice and before that as an analyst and executive assistant to former CIA director George Tenet. He was George W. Bush’s briefer on 9/11 – and was later awarded the CIA’s second highest honour, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, for his role in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Joe Bidden is also said to be considering Michael Morell, who was the CIA’s deputy director. File photo: Reuters

Donilon has held a variety of roles in the Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations, and he has known Biden for many years. He has a legal, business and political background, and he was a key architect and coordinator of policies like “the pivot to Asia” when he led the National Security Council during Obama’s first term, although he often operated behind the scenes.

His brother, Mike, is a well-established political strategist and close Biden aide who helped craft his 2020 campaign message. Biden recently announced that Mike Donilon would serve as a senior adviser in the White House.

But progressives are not entirely comfortable with Tom Donilon, either. In part, that’s due to his current role as chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute. BlackRock has been a major investor in fossil fuels, among other things, and Donilon’s role there has progressives worried about corporate influence, especially on the environmental front. It’s not clear how that supposed influence would manifest itself at Langley, however.

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Separately, some people who have worked under Donilon say he can be a hard-driving boss who routinely demands excessive, often unnecessary work from people in already challenging jobs. The critics didn’t doubt Donilon’s motivations or patriotism and said that they’d expected he’d get some sort of role in a Biden administration. Some said that, in a sense, Donilon epitomised one of the central complaints about the Obama NSC – that it was too micromanaging.

He is a “meticulous preparer” with “exacting standards that can be tough on the staff,” one former Obama administration official who worked with Donilion said.

The former official also expressed concerns about Donilon’s confidence in the spotlight. While Donilon has all the intellectual skills needed for a senior post, he is uncomfortable in public settings, the former official said, recalling frantic requests for “facts, figures, resources” ahead of major speeches.

“If he was going to do a speech [he wanted] multiple, multiple meetings to go over the text to make changes – group meetings that just drew on resources,” the person said.

Others disagreed with the critical assessment of Donilon, who was, after all, running an organisation with many layers.

Samantha Vinograd, who served as a senior adviser to Donilon when he was Obama’s national security adviser, said “no one cared more about his staff than Tom Donilon”, and that as a boss, “it didn’t get much better than Tom”.

Donilon also got a vote of confidence from Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state who is now vice-chairman of the Morgan Stanley financial firm.

“I’m sure it can be exhausting working for guys like Tom, but in these jobs, you want to have people who are working as hard as they are,” said Nides, who’s known Donilon for 35 years. “I don’t believe anyone would suggest that Tom doesn’t demand as much from himself as from anyone who’s working for him.

Read Politico’s story.