The head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, who presided over the agency’s drone campaign and directed the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is being removed from his post, officials said, a watershed moment as the CIA turns its focus to a new generation of extremist threats.
The move, part of a major reorganization under CIA Director John Brennan, ends a nine-year tenure during which the center was transformed into a paramilitary force that employed armed drones to kill thousands of suspected terrorists and militants but also killed an unknown number of civilians.
As the architect of that campaign, the CTC chief came to be regarded as an Ahab-like figure known for dark suits and a darker demeanor. He could be merciless toward subordinates but was also revered for his knowledge of terrorist networks and his ability to run an organization that became almost an agency unto itself. He embodied a killing-centric approach to counterterrorism that enraged many Muslims, even though he is a convert to Islam.
[At CIA, a convert to Islam leads the terrorism hunt]
Because he remains undercover, The Washington Post has agreed to withhold his full name. He has been publicly identified in the past by both his actual first name, Mike, as well as that of his CIA-created identity, Roger.
U.S. officials said that Roger is expected to remain at the CIA in a new assignment which has yet to be determined and that he is being replaced by an agency veteran who has held a series of high-level positions, including running the CIA’s operations in Afghanistan. His name is Chris.
Current and former U.S. officials said that the switch does not appear to signal a change in direction for the CTC or a retreat from the CIA’s willingness to use lethal force. “The new individual is just as aggressive with counterterrorism operations as the guy leaving,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who worked closely with both officers.
Even so, the transition comes at a time when U.S. counterterrorism operations have entered an unnerving new phase. After killing most of al-Qaeda’s core leaders, the pace of lethal drone strikes has tapered off dramatically. But the CTC has so far found few new approaches to contain the terrorist group’s morphing and multiplying successors.
A CIA spokesman described the outgoing CTC director as “one of the true heroes of the agency.”
“After nearly a decade of outstanding work in this post, including the takedown of countless terrorists and many other successes in protecting the country, he will be moving on in connection with the CIA modernization plan announced last month,” said the spokesman, Dean Boyd.
Roger’s successor will be under particular pressure to devise a strategy against the Islamic State, a group that has declared a new caliphate in Syria and Iraq, drawn thousands of recruits from Europe and the United States, and built a brand of brutality that has eclipsed even al-Qaeda.
“I think President Obama and Brennan have wanted to clip the CTC’s wings,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who worked at the center. “But at a time when the enemy is getting stronger and stronger, how can you pull back?”
The transition is part of a broader effort by Brennan to install new leadership across the agency’s ranks. U.S. officials said dozens of senior positions are in flux as long-standing divisions are dismantled to create new hybrid units that combine analysts and operatives — modeled largely on the CTC.
But current and former officials said Roger’s removal was remarkably unceremonious. Many CTC employees first learned of the change from a chart that was distributed to the workforce outlining Brennan’s reorganization plans. The document included names of officers Brennan had picked to lead the agency’s new collection of “mission centers” and be given new titles of assistant director. Roger’s name was not on the list.
“We all found out from a PowerPoint slide,” a U.S. official said.
Other officials said that Roger was given the option of staying in the CTC but in a diminished role reporting to Chris — an offer he apparently declined.
Colleagues who worked with Roger describe him with a mix of awe and apprehension. Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, described him as “one of the finest intelligence officers of his generation. I don’t think there has been a more successful unit in the history of the agency than the CTC during this individual’s tenure.”
That tenure made him one of the longest-serving senior national security officials in the U.S. government. Since taking over CTC in early 2006, he has outlasted three CIA directors and served two presidents, a run that his colleagues describe as particularly remarkable because of the consuming nature of the job.
After becoming CTC chief, he installed a foldaway bed in his office and often went days without leaving the CIA campus. Although a chain-smoker, he was known for spending hours on a treadmill going over terrorism reports. He was the basis for a character known as “The Wolf” in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“People were scared of him,” said the former U.S. intelligence official. “Roger was the undertaker.”
His job gave him authority to approve drone strikes, which often meant midnight calls from subordinates. His push for permission to begin launching what came to be known as “signature strikes” — attacks on suspected militants even when their identities weren’t known — led to a lethal surge that peaked in 2010 when the CIA carried out 117 strikes in Pakistan.
At one point during the height of that campaign, when asked by a colleague how it was going, he replied in a typical profane fashion, saying, “We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them.”
Critics, including some at the State Department and the Pentagon, warned that his focus on killing failed to address underlying causes of terrorism, a caution that some see as borne out by the emergence of the Islamic State and other groups.
Rumors of Roger’s departure surfaced frequently, especially after nine CIA employees were killed in a 2009 suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan, as part of disastrous recruitment operation that he had overseen.
There was also speculation that Roger would be dismissed when Brennan first arrived at the CIA two years ago saying that he planned to refocus the agency on traditional intelligence-gathering and get away from drone strikes.
But other factors also accounted for Roger’s longevity, including a perception that his involvement in running the CIA’s secret prisons and use of torture on terrorism suspects had left him so tainted that he was seen as ineligible for other high-level CIA jobs.
Roger and his successor are a study in contrasts. Chris, who is in his early 50s, is stocky, affable and popular with the agency’s rank and file.
He has worked counterterrorism operations at the CIA since the late 1990s and most recently served as the third-ranking officer in the agency’s clandestine service.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.