In choosing a new CIA director to replace David Petraeus, President Barack Obama has a range of well-qualified candidates to choose from, although some of the most qualified were in management roles at the CIA when controversial interrogation techniques were used by agency interrogators questioning al Qaeda prisoners and the CIA was maintaining secret prisons overseas to detain members of al Qaeda.
Michael Morell, a three-decade veteran of the CIA, is now the acting director of the agency and a leading contender to become the next director of central intelligence.
As a candidate for the permanent job, Morell has all the advantages and disadvantages of someone who has been instrumental in recent successes at the CIA such as tracking down Osama bin Laden. But he was also was in a managerial position at the CIA in the George W. Bush years when the agency waterboarded three detainees and also imprisoned a larger number in the secret prisons overseas where they were subjected to other coercive interrogation techniques.
Any confirmation hearing for Morell would run the risk of a public discussion of the efficacy and ethics of such controversial practices. And there would also be the risk that such a hearing might open up the Pandora's box of the CIA's many failures that led to the fiasco of the deeply flawed assessment that Saddam Hussein was building up his weapons of mass destruction program in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003.
There is also the current controversy about why the intelligence committees in Congress were informed only on Friday about the FBI investigation into Petraeus. Morell and the FBI's deputy director, Sean Joyce, are scheduled to meet with members of the intelligence committees Wednesday to discuss the matter.
In contrast to Morell, other potential candidates for the director's job at CIA, such as former U.S. Rep. Jane Harman or Michael Vickers, the top intelligence official at the Pentagon, were not working at the CIA when coercive measures were used on al Qaeda detainees.
On the other hand, few have played such a key role in some of the most dramatic moments in the war against al Qaeda as Morell has.
From the day that Bush took office on January 20, 2001, every morning, six days a week, Morrell was the CIA official who briefed the president about what the intelligence community believed to be the most pressing national security issues.
On August 6, 2001, eight months after Bush was inaugurated, Morell met with the president at his vacation home in Texas to deliver the president's daily brief.
The top-secret briefing that Morell delivered was titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S."
A month later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, in Sarasota, Florida, Morell gave the daily briefing as usual to the president. There was nothing memorable in it.
Then Morell got into the president's motorcade to head to the local elementary school where Bush planned to meet with some students. At the school, where Bush was reading a story to a group of second-graders, the news came on TV that a second jet had hit the World Trade Center.
Bush and a small group of other officials including Morell were hustled out of the school to head to Air Force One, which took off for Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, Louisiana.
In Washington, news soon circulated that a Palestinian terrorist organization, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, had claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Bush summoned Morell, asking, "What do you make of this?" Morrell replied, "The DFLP has a history of terrorism against Israel, but its capabilities are limited. It does not have the resources and reach to do this."
In the early afternoon, Air Force One headed from Louisiana to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska. Bush asked to see Morell again, and pushed him for his opinion about who was behind the attacks. "I don't have any intelligence as yet, so what I am going to say is my personal view," Morell said, "There are two terrorist states capable of conducting such a complex operation -- Iran and Iraq -- but neither have much to gain and everything to lose from attacking the U.S."
Morell added, "The responsible party is almost certainly a nonstate actor and I have no doubt that the trail will lead to bin Laden and al Qaeda," according to a U.S. intelligence official with knowledge of the conversation.
Five months later on January 4, 2002, again at Bush's vacation ranch in Texas, Morell had the delicate task of informing the president that it was the CIA's assessment bin Laden had fought at the Battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan during mid-December 2001, but he had survived and escaped.
Bush was incensed at this and became hostile, as if Morell himself were the culprit.
Flash forward to the summer of 2011: Morell, an unassuming, scholarly analyst in his mid-50s who speaks in terse, cogent paragraphs, was now the deputy director of the CIA. He was one of a small group of officials at the agency who knew there was a quite promising lead on the possible whereabouts of bin Laden that led to a large compound in the northern Pakistan city of Abbottabad.
Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, together with Morell and some of the analysts working on the hunt for bin Laden, went to Obama and told him, "We think there is a strong possibility that bin Laden is in the Abbottabad compound."
The analysts believed this with varying degrees of certainty, with most estimating the probability at 80%. The lead analyst was at around 90%, while Morell was at 60%.
"Why do people have different probabilities?" Obama asked.
"Intelligence is not an exact science," Morell explained. "Even if we had a source inside the compound saying bin Laden was there, I'd only be at 80% because sources are of varying reliability. Those analysts who are at 80% to 90% have been tracking al Qaeda in recent years and have had great success stopping plots and undermining the organization. They are confident. The folks at the lower end of the range are those who lived through intelligence failures, particularly the Iraq WMD (weapons of mass destruction) issue."
Of course, we now know that bin Laden was indeed hiding in the compound in Abbottabad, and the fact that Morell was the overall manager of the investigation that led to al Qaeda's leader will surely weigh in his favor to be the nominee for the top job at CIA.