Veteran CIA officer who used to brief George W. Bush to lead Biden intelligence sessions

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – The new director of national intelligence in the US has begun reshaping the office, installing a new official to lead President Joe Biden’s daily briefings by tapping a veteran of the last Bush administration, according to current and former government officials.

With the arrival of Mr Biden in the White House, Mr Morgan Muir, a long-time CIA analyst, has taken over the briefing job, replacing Ms Beth Sanner, Mr Donald Trump’s briefer, officials said.

Mr Muir is an experienced briefer. He served as one of President George W. Bush’s briefers for a period of three years that started well after both the Sept 11 attacks and the intelligence failures that occurred in the run-up to the Iraq War, according to former officials.

It is unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, for a CIA analyst to return for a second tour as the presidential briefer. But the intelligence community tries to match the briefer to the president. Given Mr Biden’s deep knowledge of foreign policy, finding the right briefer for him presents a challenge that the intelligence agencies have not faced since Mr George H. W. Bush, a former CIA director, became president in 1989.

Ms Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, has been attending the briefings with Mr Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, although she has allowed Mr Muir to conduct them. He has served as the play-by-play man, while she offers the commentary and perspective.

Mr Muir, said former colleagues, will be adept at anticipating Mr Biden’s questions during the briefings. If the intelligence agencies do not quickly establish the daily brief as relevant to a new president, they can find their time being pared back on the schedule.

“He is the best analyst in the intelligence community,” said Mr Michael Morell, who preceded Mr Muir as a presidential briefer in the George W. Bush administration. “He’s the best briefer in the intelligence community.”

Former intelligence officials said that the decision by Ms Haines to tap an agency veteran who had experience with a Republican president sent an important signal about how she would fulfil her pledge to run the department in an apolitical way.

As the briefer for Mr Trump, Ms Sanner was thrust into the public eye unlike few – or any – of her predecessors. The task of presenting difficult findings to a president reluctant to hear them, and openly hostile to intelligence agencies, made Ms Sanner’s post one of the most difficult in government.

Mr Muir is not known for a gentle personality. He has a reputation for making clear to junior analysts when he thinks a report prepared for the White House has fallen short of his standards.

“He knows the difference between a good piece of analysis and a poor piece of analysis,” Mr Morell said. “He will be demanding of the analysts in that regard.”

Mr Muir is also known for his precision when presenting facts and being clear when the intelligence agency’s judgments are less certain, said Mr Stephen Slick, a former CIA station chief in Israel who is the director of the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Morgan is also a prototype for the unbiased, apolitical intelligence professional that our system relies upon,” Mr Slick said.

In addition to overseeing the compilation of the daily brief, the presidential briefer serves as the director of what is called mission integration, coordinating work across the government’s 18 intelligence agencies. Mr Muir will take over that responsibility in the weeks to come. As a career CIA analyst, he has limited experience with integrating the work of other agencies.

Senior intelligence officials have considered splitting the jobs of presidential briefer and director of mission integration. Ms Haines is evaluating the situation but is keeping them together for now, according to people familiar with the matter.

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Mr Biden has wasted no time giving a slew of assignments to the intelligence community, asking for new assessments of Russia, its role in a highly sophisticated hacking of government and corporate computer networks, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, as well as assisting the FBI with a look at domestic terrorism.

Ms Sanner plans to “complete her tour in May”, said Ms Amanda Schoch, the top spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

For now, Ms Sanner has been deeply involved in getting Ms Haines fully briefed on the national intelligence office’s endeavours and working on the White House’s requests for new intelligence assessments.

“Beth Sanner is an extraordinary professional intelligence officer who has served as the deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration with great distinction,” Ms Schoch said.

For almost two years, Ms Sanner, a career CIA analyst, briefed Mr Trump, an assignment in which she had to endure the president’s digressions, rants and conspiracy theories about the 2016 and 2020 elections. After serving for 20 months as the presidential briefer and top adviser to five different directors of national intelligence, Ms Sanner is ready for an end to her current assignment, according to an intelligence official who was not authorised to speak publicly.

She could retire, but it is also possible she could be offered another senior intelligence post. Some presidential briefers have gone on to senior posts in the CIA and others have led other intelligence agencies.

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Ms Sanner, as most intelligence officers would be, was uncomfortable with the media attention on her role during the Trump administration, something she told colleagues was not good for the intelligence community.

As Mr Trump was under attack for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, he blamed Ms Sanner, although not by name, for an intelligence briefing he said underplayed the dangers of the virus, an account her defenders viewed very sceptically.

While all presidents are known to create bad days for senior intelligence officials, no presidential briefer has had a more challenging job than Ms Sanner, according to intelligence officials. Until the final months before the election, when Mr Trump turned frequently to his director of national intelligence, Mr John Ratcliffe, for the briefings, Ms Sanner held twice weekly sessions for Mr Trump.

Mr Trump did not like to hear intelligence about Russia, and unless it was carefully presented, mentioning Moscow’s efforts to interfere in US elections could derail a briefing with the president, according to those familiar with the sessions. Some former officials argued that both the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA were too cautious in how they briefed Mr Trump about Russia.

Some former officials argued that both the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA were too cautious in how they briefed former US President Donald Trump about Russia. PHOTO: AFP

But Ms Sanner’s defenders dispute those accounts, saying she never flinched when Mr Trump raised objections or tried to talk politics. According to former intelligence officials, she would answer his questions honestly, even if she knew he would not like the response.

While Ms Sanner understood that the information had to be presented in a way in which Mr Trump would be responsive, she also made sure the intelligence she delivered accurately reflected the community’s analysis, current and former officials said.

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