The resignation of CIA head David Petraeus has swept a Cuyahoga Falls native into the top office for the second time.
President Obama named 32-year CIA veteran Michael Morell acting director Friday.
The career intelligence officer, now 54, was with President George W. Bush during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, provided daily briefings to Bush and President Bill Clinton, has been described as head of the CIA’s “bin Laden Team” and was acting director of the spy squad in 2011 as well.
The CIA is the only place Morell has worked as an adult, and reports say he is in line to become its next director. That could make him the sixth director in eight years.
“I’m so very proud of him,” said his sister, Karen Gaone of Cuyahoga Falls, a nurse at Summa Akron City Hospital. “I sleep a lot better knowing he’s out there keeping us safe.”
Morell and Gaone were the offspring of a Chrysler autoworker and a homemaker. He graduated from Cuyahoga Falls High School in 1976 and commuted to the University of Akron, where he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1980.
Morell thought he would teach economics at the college level. A professor suggested he apply to the CIA, however, and his mother pestered him to call the agency back when he didn’t get a reply to his application.
The rest is history.
He was only 21 when he joined the agency as an economic analyst. His sister and mother helped him to find a place to live in the Washington, D.C., area, Gaone recalled in an interview Monday.
Morell worked his way up the CIA ladder while earning a master’s degree at Georgetown University and completing the coursework — but not his dissertation — for a doctorate there.
He became chief of the CIA’s division on Asia, the Pacific and Latin America. A half-dozen years ago he began a fast clip of promotions that propelled him into the limelight.
After an undisclosed assignment in London from 2003 to 2006, Morell, a married father of three, was named deputy director for intelligence at the CIA’s new Counterterrorism Center.
That was followed only three months later as associate deputy director of the CIA, director for intelligence in 2008, deputy director in 2010 and acting director from July to September 2011.
His name crept into the media Sept. 11, 2001. He was with Bush at a Sarasota, Fla., grade school during the terrorist attack.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Bush later asked, “Who did this?” and that Morell said he responded, “I haven’t seen any intelligence, but I would bet every dollar I have that it’s al Qaeda.”
In interviews with the Beacon Journal in 2006, Morell was philosophic about the spy agency’s successes and failures.
“Our successes aren’t public,” he said. “Those times when we struggle a little bit, it’s on the front page of the paper.”
In notifying CIA employees that he had been named acting director, he praised Petraeus’ “heroic service to our nation.”
“Our top priority now is what it always has been: to stay focused on message and all the important work we do to keep our country safe.”
Morell told the Beacon Journal the public has the idea that agency staffers are James Bond-like.
“The reality is: We’re not James Bond,” he said. “And the reality is that we are a lot better than the front page of some newspapers would suggest.”
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.