Obama's choice of CIA director to signal course
WASHINGTON — President Obama began his first term with a dramatic change of course for the CIA, issuing orders on his second day in office to close the agency's secret prisons and ban harsh interrogation techniques.
As Obama approaches a second term with an unexpected opening for CIA director, agency officials are watching to see whether the president's pick signals even a modest adjustment in the main counterterrorism program he kept: the use of armed drones to kill extremist suspects.
The resignation of David H. Petraeus over an adulterous affair brought an abrupt end to the short tenure of a CIA director who sought to cement the agency's ties with the military and expand its drone fleet.
The list of possible replacements is led by three CIA veterans who have all contributed to the agency's pronounced shift toward paramilitary operations. Obama's choice could determine whether the trajectory continues or begins to taper off.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, 57, is seen by many as the leading candidate for the CIA job. In recent months, he has expressed concern within the Obama administration that the agency has become too focused on targeted killings, even though he has presided over the sharp expansion of the drone campaign.
The other potential nominees include acting CIA Director Michael Morell, 54, who is regarded as a stabilizing presence more than a proponent of change, and Michael G. Vickers, 59, a senior Pentagon official who is considered the most ardent supporter of the agency's expanded paramilitary role.
Federal officials said Obama has not signaled his choice or even when that decision might come. But senior lawmakers and agency veterans said the next director will face immediate pressure to improve intelligence gathering in places beyond those patrolled by drones.
“I think this is the time for transition,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Counterterrorism will remain the agency's top priority, Feinstein said, but the recent attack on U.S. compounds in Libya and mounting concerns about cyber conflicts underscore other vulnerabilities.
“We have to strengthen human intelligence in key areas,” Feinstein said, “and transition from the kind of Pakistan-Afghanistan intelligence gathering” that has dominated the agency's agenda since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Former agency officials, including those who worked in counterterrorism, cited similar concerns over the need for a balance between paramilitary operations and intelligence collection and analysis.
“As much as there remains a terrorism threat, that can't be the preoccupation of the director of CIA 99 percent of the time anymore,” said Bruce Riedel, a former agency analyst and adviser to Obama.
The fundamental question for Obama, Riedel said, is: “Should the agency be looking to be the principal player in a global drone war versus its more traditional role as the principal collector and analyst of foreign intelligence?”