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Monday, June 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

CIA looks to 'Merlin' to work his magic

By The Associated Press and The Washington Post

John McLaughlin, right, will become acting director of the CIA in July, when George Tenet, left, steps down. The two are pictured being sworn in before testifying to the Sept. 11 commission in April.
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WASHINGTON — Harrison Ford has filled John McLaughlin's job in the movies, but in real life, the CIA's bespectacled, cerebral deputy director has stayed so well-cloaked that few outside the agency know him.

That started to change last week with President Bush's announcement that McLaughlin would take over as the agency's acting director in July, when George Tenet leaves the job after seven years.

McLaughlin moves up at a critical time for the Central Intelligence Agency and 14 other agencies that make up the nation's intelligence apparatus. Senior members at various intelligence agencies caution that they see a series of high-profile events this summer that could become attractive targets for terrorists. They worry that al-Qaida or its allies might try to strike the United States in a way to replicate the political and economic impact of the March train bombings in Madrid, Spain.

Officials close to McLaughlin describe him as meticulous, professorial and cerebral, in many ways a contrast to the more gregarious Tenet. John Brennan, director of the federal Terrorist Threat Integration Center, has called McLaughlin Tenet's alter ego.

McLaughlin, called "Merlin" by his peers, can be seen walking around with rubber bands on his wrists, used for impromptu magic tricks. He can turn a $1 bill into other denominations. He wowed students at a Northern Virginia high school by tearing a Washington Post into a dozen pieces and putting it back together seamlessly.

As Tenet announced his impending departure to CIA personnel, he described his replacement as "a man of magical warmth."

"He will be a great acting director," Tenet said.

However, complicating McLaughlin's prospects is another factor: Although he keeps a low profile, McLaughlin was more substantively involved than Tenet in the problems that led to the writing of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq — the official prewar assessment of the Iraq threat — that was based on faulty, outdated and poorly sourced intelligence.

One former official said McLaughlin is blamed in the West Wing for having signed off on the allegation in Bush's State of the Union address that Iraq had sought to acquire yellowcake uranium from Africa. Tenet said he hadn't approved the passage, but White House officials said McLaughlin did.

One congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some lawmakers have expressed concerns about McLaughlin's credibility in handling future situations.

The focus also will be on McLaughlin's relationship with Bush, including whether McLaughlin continues a somewhat unusual trend established in the Bush administration: the CIA director giving the president his regular morning intelligence briefings.
McLaughlin has filled in for Tenet for this assignment when the director was unavailable. Bush's national-security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said McLaughlin is someone the president "knows well and trusts."

Within the intelligence community, McLaughlin will also be responsible for continuing to strengthen the clandestine and analytical departments and to help facilitate the bumpy but reinvigorated working relationship with the FBI. Unlike Tenet, who had trouble before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, persuading the White House and Congress to give the intelligence community more money, McLaughlin's task will be to make sure the increases are spent effectively.

And at a time of unprecedented recruiting for CIA case officers and analysts, McLaughlin will be expected to defend the agency's reputation and morale during the coming criticism from two congressional reports and the Sept. 11 commission.

McLaughlin, 61, is married with two children. He graduated in 1964 from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He earned a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1966 with a specialty in European affairs. In 1968-69, he served in Southeast Asia as an Army infantry officer during the Vietnam War.

Since 1972, he has worked his way up the CIA's ranks. He was an analyst for European and Russian issues before rising to deputy director for intelligence in 1997. By 2000, he had become Tenet's right hand, as deputy director of central intelligence.

McLaughlin speaks admiringly of the agency's operatives and analysts. "We are forced each day to take risks — in both operations and analysis. And by definition, with risk comes the possibility of mistake, even failure," he said in a September speech to the National Conference of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "The certain and the easy we leave to others."

McLaughlin told the audience that Ford has played his job in the movies. Ford's character, Jack Ryan, was the CIA's acting deputy director for intelligence in "Clear and Present Danger."

"The real thing is better," McLaughlin said. "Rarely as flashy, never as lucrative, but vastly more rewarding."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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