Who Will Replace Petraeus: Top 4 Candidates for New CIA Director


President Obama faces the difficult decision of nominating a new CIA director to fill the void left by David Petraeus’s resignation last week. There are several candidates reportedly under consideration, including a few who served in senior intelligence positions during the Bush Administration. The pros and cons of each are discussed below.

1. Michael Morell: 

The current Acting Director of the CIA is considered by many to be the leading candidate to replace Petraeus. He is a three-decade veteran of the CIA, who has held several senior management positions at the agency, including director for intelligence and deputy director. Morell knows the CIA well and has worked directly with previous CIA directors and presidents alike. He also played a key role in Obama’s intelligence successes to date, such as the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. His close relationship with President Bush, which he forged when he was responsible for the president’s Daily Brief, and association with Bush-era interrogation practices, however, may complicate his chances. It is unclear how Morell’s background as an intelligence analyst – as opposed to an Operations Officer – will affect his candidacy.

2. John Brennan: 

The current deputy national security advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism is often described as the most influential intelligence official in the Obama administration because of his close relationship with the president. He served for 25 years as a CIA operations officer, including in senior postings throughout the Middle East and as director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Brennan was Obama’s original choice to serve as CIA director during his first term until he withdrew his name from consideration after Congressional Republicans threatened to use his confirmation hearings to explore his support for Bush-era interrogation practices. He directs U.S. counterterrorism policies, including the drone campaign and hunt for senior Al Qaeda operatives, from his White House office. It is unclear if Brennan would want to become CIA Director and be required to report to the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, instead of directly to the president.

3. Michael Vickers: 

The current under secretary of defense for Intelligence oversees all military intelligence programs, including the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency, among others. He is a former Army Special Forces officer and CIA Operations officer with several decades of experience in intelligence circles. He is perhaps most well known for the key role he played arming mujahideen forces in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, which earned him a role in Charlie Wilson’s War (both the book and move adaptation thereof). He was intimately involved in the operation to kill Bin Laden – like Morell and Brennan – but was out of government and had no role in Bush-era interrogation practices. So he has less potential baggage associated with his prior intelligence service.  

4. Jane Harman: 

The current president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Harman is a leading progressive voice on national security issues. She served in the Defense Department during the Carter Administration and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1993. During her 18-year career in Congress, Harmon served on the House Armed Services Committee, Intelligence Committee, and Homeland Security Committee and amassed extensive knowledge and experience in national security matters. She would be the first ever-female Director of the CIA, if nominated and confirmed.

President Obama has several strong candidates to choose from to replace David Petraeus as CIA Director. The White House will seek to avoid a potentially contentious confirmation process – that could accompany Brennan’s nomination (assuming he wants the new post, which is arguably less influential than his current one) or Harman’s (who is a partisan figured disliked by some Congressional Republicans). Morell and Vickers the most likely candidates to succeed Petraeus because both are career intelligence officials who have been intimately involved in many of the Obama Administration’s flagship intelligence policies. The CIA Director has traditionally not had the public persona of a Petraeus or a Panetta (or even a Harman or Brennan), so the president has the flexibility to choose Morell or Vickers, who are more experienced at operating behind the scenes instead of in the public eye.

Between Morell and Vickers, Morell is the likelier candidate because he is the current Acting Director of the CIA. Concerns about his CIA service during the Bush Administration are likely overblown because he is not believed to be one of the primary architects of the controversial enhanced interrogation procedures. His nomination would likely elicit bipartisan support and allow President Obama to focus his political capital on other potential nomination battles, including that of a new Secretary of State, should Secretary Clinton step down, as is expected.