David Cohen, who helped spearhead CIA modernization efforts, could be Biden’s pick for the agency’s post-Trump future

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Undersecretary of State for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen testifies before a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Perspectives on the Strategic Necessity of Iran Sanctions, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 27, 2015. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
David Cohen, then undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence, testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee in 2015. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — In 2015, David Cohen, then the second in command at the Central Intelligence Agency, led a deep-dive internal investigation into how the nation’s premier spy agency was adapting to the digital age, from shielding its undercover officers from exposure to making use of evolving technology to spy on enemies.

“We needed to up our game,” recalled former CIA Director John Brennan during an interview with Yahoo News.

When Brennan brought Cohen on to serve as his deputy in 2015, the director was in the process of an agency-wide reorganization — a shake-up still met by mixed reactions within the CIA’s internal ranks.

One of the major recommendations given by a task force Cohen helped guide was to create a new center, the Directorate of Digital Innovation, to zero in on the threats and opportunities presented by technology — from launching offensive cyber operations to protecting the most sensitive covert operations. “How are we going to operate in the World Wide Web, and do it securely, and do it without attribution?” Brennan recalled asking.

Cohen was responsible for implementing those changes in practice, weaving through the layers of bureaucracy and turning the suggestions of the task force into reality. And in 2017, when he left the agency and joined the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as a senior fellow, he chose to continue that research instead of focusing on his previous area of expertise, terrorist financing.

Now he’s reportedly being considered as one of President-elect Joe Biden’s candidates for CIA director amid pushback from human rights experts and progressives opposed to Michael Morell, Biden’s original top choice. Morell was not directly involved in the agency’s harsh post-9/11 counterterrorism operations, including torture, but he has previously defended those practices.

Cohen, an attorney and former undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, used to spend his time tracking the money that groups like al-Qaida used to fund their activities. When President Barack Obama plucked CIA Deputy Director Avril Haines out of the agency to serve at the White House as deputy national security adviser, he selected Cohen — respected for his ability to hunt and shut down the Islamic State’s illicit funds, as well as his distance from some of the agency’s controversial post-9/11 measures, like torture — as her replacement.

Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen speaks about HSBC during a news conference at the Conrad B. Duberstein U.S. Bankruptcy Courthouse in New York December 11, 2012.(Joshua Lott/Reuters)
Cohen at a news conference in New York in 2012. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

Cohen was an agency outsider, but he knew national security. Like Haines, who is now Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence and another Brennan deputy, Cohen was “not hostage to having grown up in the agency,” the former director said.

“He has the substantive background experience, but he didn’t have the institutional biases, if you will,” Brennan concluded, making the same point about Haines, whose career stretched from owning an independent bookstore in Baltimore to studying judo in Japan. (Cohen’s familiarity with Haines would also likely be an asset.)

“I thought, he’s somebody that would maybe challenge traditional views,” explained Brennan. Cohen’s experience at Treasury gave him great insight, Brennan recalled, including “in the cyber environment, particularly with how our adversaries took action to bust sanctions.”

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, the former director of Harvard’s Intelligence Project and a former CIA officer, agreed that coming from outside the agency had advantages. Cohen “has a fresh perspective,” he said, recalling two talks the former CIA deputy director gave at Harvard about the future of intelligence.

That kind of “strategic thinking” could be useful in figuring out future challenges the intelligence community faces, like climate change and the digital age, among other issues, Mowatt-Larssen said.

Biden needs to juggle a number of considerations when selecting a CIA director — including that person’s familiarity with the agency and its work, their proximity to the White House, and their ability to quickly address challenges posed by politics under Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic and growing pains associated with modernization. The Biden transition team declined to comment on his CIA pick.

President-elect Joe Biden stands with his nominees for his national security team at his transition headquarters in the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 24, 2020. (L-R), are: Antony Blinken to be secretary of state; Jake Sullivan to be U.S. national security adviser; Alejandro Mayorkas to be secretary of Homeland Security; Avril Haines to be director of national intelligence; John Kerry to be a special envoy for climate change; and Ambassador to the United Nations-nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who stands behind Vice President-elect Kamala Haris. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
President-elect Joe Biden with nominees for his national security team on Nov. 24. Left to right: Antony Blinken, secretary of state; Jake Sullivan, national security adviser; Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security; Avril Haines, director of national intelligence; John Kerry, special envoy for climate change; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, ambassador to the United Nations, who stands behind Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

While Cohen may be a safer choice as someone who wasn’t caught up in the post-9/11 controversies at the CIA, he would likely still face a grilling from the Senate.

One former CIA officer told Yahoo News that Cohen, as a senior official at the agency between 2015 and 2017, was “fully involved in the drone program” that involved targeted killing of terrorists and militants. It’s likely Democrats on the Hill would ask about any role he might have had in the program, which Obama has recently defended, though saying he took “no joy” in the killings.

Another advantage might be that he spent a significant chunk of time thinking about how to bring the agency into the future. The CIA in recent years had faced major challenges with technology, including adapting its undercover program, and the breach of an insecure covert communications platform that led to the exposure and imprisonment or execution of dozens of CIA assets around the world.

One of the ways the agency attempted to address technology issues during Cohen’s tenure as deputy director was in creating the “Station of the Future,” a hub in Latin America for CIA officers to test out new technology and workspaces. However, the project met bureaucratic resistance and was ultimately shuttered.

Brennan told Yahoo News that when he and Cohen were running the agency, they would have seminars in which CEOs from various companies, including from Silicon Valley, could speak with CIA officers, and they also sent CIA officers for “externships” at outside companies.

Mowatt-Larssen recalled that Cohen was very “humble” about the fact that he didn’t have experience with the CIA’s covert operations, but he had clearly “thought about” evolving challenges they might face with “ubiquitous surveillance, cover in the digital world.”

One final advantage that Cohen — who later made a cameo in an episode of “Game of Thrones” — may have at the agency is that he was well liked, according to Brennan. He was something of a legendary Ping-Pong champion there, and someone who “does not have an ego,” Brennan recalled.

“I can’t think of anybody who didn’t like and admire David because of his work ethic,” Brennan said.

David Cohen make a cameo appearance in "Game of Thrones." (HBO via CIA Twitter)
David Cohen make a cameo appearance in “Game of Thrones.” (HBO via CIA Twitter)

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