The man overseeing President Joe Biden's daily intelligence briefing previously advocated for the CIA’s false claims about its torture program to a powerful Senate committee, according to its former lead investigator and three others with direct knowledge of the events.
In 2013, during a dramatic standoff between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA, Morgan Muir, then a senior CIA analyst, played a pivotal role that has never before been reported. After the Senate committee found that “enhanced interrogation techniques” against terror suspects were not effective, he led a series of tense meetings in which the CIA attacked those findings.
Though the committee’s politically explosive 6,700-page report on the subject was based on the CIA’s own documents, Daniel Jones, the lead author, said Muir continued to defend the value of the torture program, citing information that the CIA would later publicly admit was inaccurate.
After questions from BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for the Office of Director of National Intelligence said Muir is no longer expected to brief Biden personally.
Jones told BuzzFeed News he believes Muir’s statements to the committee should immediately disqualify him from his new role because he cannot be trusted to “convey accurate information.”
“I would not trust him,” Jones said. Given Muir’s past statements, he said, “there’s no room for you in senior positions anymore.”
Muir did not respond to inquiries from BuzzFeed News. CIA spokesperson Timothy Barrett called Jones’ characterizations “baseless” and Muir “an exemplary career intelligence officer whose strength of character is unquestionable.”
But former Democratic senator Mark Udall, who was a particularly outspoken member of the Intelligence Committee, expressed caution. “President Biden has assembled a strong national security team, but he should have serious concerns about entrusting his Presidential Daily Briefing to anyone who may have helped cover up this dark chapter in our nation's history,” Udall said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
In addition, he said: “I can attest that it's critical that intelligence agencies provide the president and other leaders with unbiased, factual and honest information. As we now know, the CIA and its leadership misled the public, senators, and Senate staff for years about the CIA's systematic and brutal torture of detainees.”
As first reported in the New York Times, Muir was initially tapped to meet with Biden for the President’s Daily Brief, a highly classified summary of national security threats around the world.
After BuzzFeed News contacted ODNI for comment, spokesperson Amanda Schoch said Wednesday that Muir’s responsibilities would not include being in the Oval Office “on a daily basis briefing the President.”
On Friday she seemed to rule out presidential briefings altogether. “He is not the President’s briefer as that term is generally understood, and there are no plans for him to be in the oval,” said Schoch.
His new role is to be in charge of mission integration, which means he will be responsible for coordinating intelligence collection and analysis across multiple agencies. That includes overseeing the contents of the President’s Daily Brief, which she said will probably be delivered by “a series of expert briefers.” She gave no explanation for the change.
In response to questions about Muir’s role defending the torture program, she said, “Morgan Muir is a widely respected intelligence officer who has demonstrated the highest standards of integrity and professionalism throughout his career.”
The White House declined to comment.
The 2013 meetings with the Senate Intelligence Committee took place in a highly charged political climate, after the committee had completed — though not yet published — its report and the CIA had offered its formal response. Muir, who had previously provided the Daily Brief to President George W. Bush, was chosen to lead the CIA’s delegation in a series of discussions with committee members and staffers.
The daylong meetings, which continued over the course of months, took place inside the secure facility at the Hart Senate Office Building, where classified information is discussed. Jones and another source said the meetings were recorded and the tapes are in the committee's vault.
The two sides’ perspectives were so far apart, it sometimes seemed impossible to reconcile even basic facts. “We would say, ‘Here’s a piece of paper. It is red. We can all see that it is red,’” Jones said. “And they would say, ‘No, it’s blue.’ ”
Three sources knowledgeable about the interactions corroborated Jones’ account. Jones, who now leads a private research and investigative firm, said Muir defended the CIA’s response to the torture report — even after he was shown copies of the agency’s own records contradicting its claims.
“He continued to double down on the false assertions,” Jones said.
For instance, the CIA claimed a success in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who the agency said gave up information about another terror operative after being subjected to waterboarding. President Bush would also cite that case when he revealed the existence of the CIA’s interrogation program in 2006. But by the time Mohammed was waterboarded, the CIA had already obtained the information through another operation, without the use of torture.
When the Senate torture report and the CIA's response were released, the CIA also quietly posted three pages of corrections to its response, including the fact that Bush was given inaccurate information about Mohammed. It would be a year before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the public even learned of the existence of the corrections.
Eventually the meetings — dramatized in the movie The Report, about Jones’ investigation into the CIA’s torture program and the yearslong effort to release a public version of the report — broke down altogether. In March 2014, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s chairperson, accused the CIA of spying on her committee, intimidating her staffers, and attempting to block the release of the torture report.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Intelligence Committee then and now, did not respond directly to questions about Muir. But in a statement to BuzzFeed News, he said, “The American people deserve transparency about the backgrounds of high-level intelligence officials who, besides directly briefing the President, work for the public.”
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
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