Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell is retiring and President Barack Obama has selected a White House lawyer, Avril D. Haines, to replace him at the spy agency.
Morell, 54, who began at the Central Intelligence Agency in 1980 as an analyst, helped draft the administration’s talking points on the attack on diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. He will become a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the White House said in a statement.
Taking over the job is Haines, 43, who has been deputy counsel to the president for national security affairs since 2010, marking the first time a woman has ascended to the agency’s second highest position. While she previously worked at the State Department and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she does not have a background in intelligence work.
“I am proud that such experienced and committed individuals have agreed to serve the American people in these important roles,” Obama said in a statement. “I look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead.”
With United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice scheduled to become Obama’s national security adviser in July and former adviser Samantha Power nominated to replace Rice at the UN, Obama’s foreign policy team has three women in top positions.
Morell, who served as acting director following the resignation of David Petraeus in November until John Brennan was confirmed as CIA director in March, said he’s leaving to devote more time to his family.
“Whenever someone involved in the rough and tumble of Washington decides to move on, there is speculation in various quarters about the ‘real reason,’” Morell said in a statement. “But when I say that it is time for my family, nothing could be more real than that.”
Brennan, who was Obama’s counterterrorism adviser before taking over at the CIA, said he’s worked closely with Haines over the past several years. She’s been a regular participant in high-level meetings and headed a group of lawyers that reviews the CIA’s most sensitive programs, he said in a statement.
He also thanked Morell for helping him make the transition back to the agency.
Morell, who also was one of President George W. Bush’s intelligence briefers, has come under criticism from Republicans over the Benghazi talking points, which removed any reference to al-Qaeda from the administration’s initial explanation of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The talking points were used by Rice on Sunday talk shows to describe the Benghazi attack as growing out of a spontaneous demonstration sparked by a movie trailer that Muslims found offensive to their religion. Republicans have conducted multiple hearings on the administration’s response.
When the Obama administration released almost 100 pages of e-mails about the origins of the talking points last month, administration officials said that they showed that it was Morell, a career CIA employee, who made the final edits to the document.
That chain of authorship allowed the Obama administration to preserve its argument that the White House made only minor edits to a document that originated in the intelligence community.
References to al-Qaeda were removed while the document was still being drafted by the CIA, according to White House officials who briefed reporters. It was eventually replaced with “Islamic extremist,” in the final draft.
Morell didn’t mention the Benghazi controversy in his public notice about his retire.
“I am passionate about two things in this world -- the agency and my family,” he said in a statement emailed to CIA employees. “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.”