New acting CIA director a veteran of the game

Michael Morrell
Michael Morell, during a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, June 20, 2012, when he was deputy director of the CIA.
AP Photo

(CBS News) For most of the past decade, David Petraeus seemed indispensable. His military leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan made him a natural to become the nation's chief covert warrior.

Now that he's out, and so suddenly, will the CIA be undermined?

After only 14 months, Petraeus -- the supposedly indispensable man -- is gone. Without warning, a new man -- Michael Morell -- must step forward from his post as deputy, first to Leon Panetta and then to Petreaus, and take over.

John McLaughlin knows what that's like. He did it in 2004.

"Once you're sitting in the chair there's no one sitting behind you. There's no safety net, so the acting director is for all practical purposes is the director for that period of time," McLaughlin said.

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Can Morell, an economist by training, head an organization in the middle of a shooting war?

He has been in on the war since it started. As President Bush's daily briefer, he delivered that famous briefing in August of 2001: "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." He was with the president on 9/11, receiving reports from CIA headquarters.

He is an analyst, not an operator, but then neither was Panetta, who during his term as CIA director headed the most successful operation of all: The hunt for Osama bin Laden. Morell was part of the operation, assigned to come up with arguments why the intelligence that bin Laden was hiding in a Pakistani compound could be wrong. Like the president before, this president knows Morell.

"The CIA works primarily for the president and the acting director's ability to function as a director depends to a large degree on the president's confidence in him or her," McLaughlin said.

Morell is the eighth CIA director in the past seven years. You could almost say CIA directors are not indispensable; they're disposable.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.