11:58 GMT18 January 2021
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    Media reports have recently emerged suggesting Joe Biden is seriously considering naming former Tom Donilon, the former national security adviser under Obama, as the person to head the CIA.

    Dr Joseph Fitsanakis, an associate professor in the Politics in Intelligence and National Security Studies programme at Coastal Carolina University, has offered his take on what repercussions the reported potential appointment of WH veteran Tom Donilon could have on the new administration's course.

    Sputnik: Projected President-elect Joe Biden is ostensibly leaning toward naming former Obama administration national security adviser Tom Donilon as his CIA director. How will this appointment influence the Biden-Harris administration’s policies?

    First of all, we shall see, I guess, if Tom Donilon is indeed a top pick for the president elect. There is in fact, I would say, no guarantee that we will see a change of leadership at the CIA. But having said, of course, I mean, restoring the trust between the executive and the intelligence community, which has reached depths that we've never seen before under President Trump is a major concern for the new administration.

    So it is, I would agree, very likely that a replacement for Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, may be in the works just so as to bring a sense of renewal at the CIA, perhaps help restore its ties to the White House.

    Now, Tom Donilon, he's definitely a formidable presence in the Democratic Party policy, diplomatic areas in recent years. He's had a remarkably long career involving all of the three most recent Democratic presidents.

    I mean, Carter, Clinton, Obama, he's been there for the whole thing. And he has associated his name with some of the most, I would say, consequential decisions of the US in recent decades, NATO expansion, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the so-called pivot to Asia. But here's the important thing. He is someone who Biden thinks he can have a good relationship with - a relationship of trust.

    Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon attends a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (not pictured) at the White House in Washington February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
    © REUTERS / Carlos Barria
    Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon attends a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (not pictured) at the White House in Washington February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

    This is exactly what has been missing from the relationship between the executive and the White House in recent times. I mean, think about this. Just over a week ago, the president's own son, Donald Trump Jr., publicly referred to the current CIA director, Gina Haspel, as, quote - a trained liar.

    This is unprecedented in American political life. And I think this is precisely what the Biden administration is trying to put an end to – by possibly choosing somebody like Tom Donilon for this position. 

    Tom Donilon is known for creating policies like the “pivot to Asia” under Obama, as you’ve mentioned. Will this play any role in the projected administration’s foreign policy?

    I think it's worth pointing out here that the United States intelligence community, including, of course, the CIA, does not draft policy or provide advice on policy. The analysis role of the CIA aims to provide wisdom, clarity, insight in the decision process. Basically it reduces the uncertainty that's involved in decision making on national security issues. So in that sense, Donilon would have to stay clear of policy making.

    So what I wonder is, would he be able to do that - as a man who has been involved in policy making his whole life, his whole political career, would he be able to adapt to this new role and stay clear of policy and decision making that would be critical in preserving the neutrality of the CIA when it comes to a decision making process at the executive level. On top of that, Donilon is actually not a CIA insider.

    He has got no experience in intelligence, only in diplomacy. So how would his relationship be with his own subordinates at the agency? How will the personnel of the CIA, which is a very closely knit community, by the way, react to a potential pick of an outsider to head this agency? That remains to be seen, of course, if Donilon is indeed picked to lead the CIA. 

    It has also been reported that Michele Flournoy might be tapped to lead the Pentagon. She has been criticised for her advocacy of higher defence spending and the escalation of the Afghan war. How will these projected picks – Michele Flournoy and Tom Donilon – influence the balance of power on the world stage?

    I think it's important to say that these two individuals, Donilon and Flournoy, they're not necessarily representative of the same wing of the Democratic Party. So Donilon can be placed definitely left of Flournoy and most policy issues.

    And also, if you look at their background, unlike Donilon, who is the grandson of Catholic Irish immigrants, Flournoy is a Harvard educated sort of East Coast insider with a government service that dates back to the Clinton administration. She's definitely part of a hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. She supported the 2003 Iraq war.

    She supported one of the few people left in the Democratic Party today who would still probably stand in support of that decision in 2003. Back in 97, she helped draft this sort of well-known strategy document in the Clinton administration, which put forward the fantastical idea that the US military forces should be able to fight and win two major theater wars at the same time, which, of course, this idea came to an end with the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    US Marines wave goodbye as they leave the military headquarters in Najaf in central Iraq, 23 September 2003
    © AFP 2020 / Thomas COEX
    US Marines wave goodbye as they leave the military headquarters in Najaf in central Iraq, 23 September 2003

    So it's not clear how her views on that topic have evolved since that time. I mean, I think today she would definitely not be the first pick of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, mostly because of her role in that fateful decision of the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Libya, something that many people in the Obama administration, including Donilon, actually strongly objected to at the time.

    So there's no question, of course, that Flournoy represents the anti-isolationist camp in American foreign and defense policy. But the question, of course, is how will that translate in the post Trump and the post pandemic era? I mean, a lot of things have changed in the last four years. For example, what were her thoughts be on, say, US foreign policy on Yemen and the Saudi involvement in that war?

    What's her stance going to be on China's claims in Taiwan? What's her stance going to be on Israel's proposed annexation of the West Bank and the possibility of yet another Israeli Palestinian war? What's her take going to be on the Iranian nuclear program, the North Korean nuclear posture? So I think at this point, there's definitely more questions than there are answers, although, again, she definitely can be placed within the sort of the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party. 

    We have also seen reports that Michael Morrell is a top competitor to Tom Donilon. What can you say about his character, about what can we expect from him if he is tapped to run the CIA?

    Michael Morell, the big difference between Tom Donilon and Michael Morell is that Michael Morell is from within the ranks of the CIA. So he is not an outsider. So in terms of the response of the CIA itself to a position being to having Morell placed at the helm of the agency would probably be more favorable.

    Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell
    © AP Photo / Manuel Balce Ceneta
    Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell

    But there are many others who have been kind of rumored to be in the sort of in the game for this position, including Morell, including Justin Jackson, somebody that potentially the first African-American director of the CIA, somebody with a nearly 30 year career at the agency who has campaigned vociferously for more diversity at the agency. The several different picks that one can sort of can talk about morale is definitely one of them.

    And again, the big difference is that he comes from within the ranks of the agency. And so that potentially could be more welcomed by the agency itself. 

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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