John E. McLaughlin, the studious man President Bush chose yesterday to lead the CIA, has called himself "the most anonymous" senior official in Washington.
Before a roomful of CIA employees, outgoing Director George J. Tenet revealed yesterday that McLaughlin is known by another moniker around headquarters: Merlin.
"A man of magical warmth, wit," Tenet said, "wisdom and decency."
McLaughlin, 61, an amateur magician, will face the challenge of keeping the CIA and other intelligence agencies from losing focus under pressure from two distinctly different sources: al Qaeda terrorists and the presidential campaign.
McLaughlin, who was named acting director yesterday, is known for his soft, slow, professorial whisper. He has spent considerable time in face-to-face discussions with Bush over CIA operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and often acts as Bush's daily briefer when Tenet is out of town.
Although Jami Miscik heads the CIA's analytical section, insiders say Tenet has relied heavily on McLaughlin's analysis of Iraq's prewar weapons programs and of the threat posed by al Qaeda.
While Tenet sees McLaughlin's analytical talents as a benefit, some congressional officials who have reviewed the CIA's prewar intelligence on Iraq see McLaughlin as part of the problem, given the lack of analytical rigor applied to some of the intelligence estimates.
Unlike Tenet, who was schooled in Capitol Hill and White House politics as a staffer in both places, McLaughlin's formative years were spent as a CIA analyst on European and Soviet matters. He was the analytical division's director of European analysis when Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev surprised the agency with reforms that shook up Eastern Europe. He was director of Slavic and Eurasian analysis, responsible for the Soviet Union, when the Soviet state fell apart.
He became deputy director of central intelligence in 2000. He has been chief liaison between the White House and the departments of Defense and State, where he is widely respected.
In a recent interview, McLaughlin defended the CIA's assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But he lamented the fact that, before the war, the agency and other parts of the U.S. government had created an unrealistic expectation about the weapons. "I think everyone made a mistake in allowing an image to be created of stacks" of such weapons and "mounds of artillery" shells filled with deadly poisons.
"In fact, it wouldn't have been like that," he said, citing the swimming-pool-size space necessary to hide the tons of chemicals and biological weapons the CIA said Iraq possessed.
Commenting on McLaughlin's promotion yesterday, one associate mused: "John McLaughlin and his magic tricks. He'll need them all."