Washington: He is known as the 'Dark Prince' or 'Ayatollah Mike', nicknames he earned as the CIA officer who oversaw the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the US drone strike campaign that killed thousands of Islamist militants and hundreds of civilians.
Now the official, Michael D’Andrea, has a new job. He is running the CIA’s Iran operations, according to current and former intelligence officials, an appointment that is the first major sign that the Trump administration is invoking the hard line the president took against Iran during his campaign.
D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.
Iran has been one of the hardest targets for the CIA. The agency has extremely limited access to the country — no US embassy is open to provide diplomatic cover — and Iran’s intelligence services have spent nearly four decades trying to counter US espionage and covert operations.
The challenge to start carrying out President Donald Trump’s views falls to D’Andrea, a chain-smoking convert to Islam, who comes with an outsize reputation and the track record to back it up: Perhaps no single CIA official is more responsible for weakening Al Qaida.
“He can run a very aggressive programme, but very smartly,” said Robert Eatinger, a former CIA lawyer who was deeply involved in the agency’s drone programme.
The CIA declined to comment on D’Andrea’s role, saying it does not discuss the identities or work of clandestine officials. The officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because D’Andrea remains undercover, as do many senior officials based at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Eatinger did not use his name. The New York Times is naming D’Andrea because his identity was previously published in news reports, and he is leading an important new administration initiative against Iran.
Trump called Iran “the number one terror state” and pledged throughout the campaign to dismantle or revise the landmark deal between Iran and six world powers in which Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
The president has not gone through with that threat, and his administration has quietly recertified Iran’s compliance with the deal. But he has invoked his hard line on Iran in other ways. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has described the deal as a failure, and Trump has appointed to the National Security Council hawks eager to contain Iran and push regime change, the groundwork for which would most likely be laid through CIA covert action.
In D’Andrea, the director has found a workaholic to be his Iran sentinel. D’Andrea grew up in Northern Virginia in a family whose ties to the CIA span two generations. He met his wife, who is Muslim, on a CIA posting overseas, and converted to Islam to marry her, though he is not known to be particularly observant.
Asked whether D’Andrea’s appointment was a sign that the CIA planned to take up a more aggressive line toward Iran, Eatinger said, “I don’t think it’s the wrong read.”
D’Andrea’s personal views on Iran are not publicly known. It is also not his job to make policy but to execute it, and he has demonstrated that he is an aggressive operations officer.
In the years after the September 11 attacks, D’Andrea was deeply involved in the detention and interrogation programme, which resulted in the torture of a number of prisoners and was condemned in a sweeping Senate report in 2014 as inhumane and ineffective. Only the executive summary of the 6,700-page report has been made public; the Trump administration has begun returning copies of the full document to Congress, which is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, raising the prospect that it will never be released.
D’Andrea took over the agency’s Counterterrorism Centre in early 2006 and spent the next nine years directing the hunt for militants around the world.
Operatives under his direction played a pivotal role in 2008 in the killing of Emad Mughniyah, the international operations chief for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group based in Lebanon. Working with the Israelis, the CIA used a car bomb to kill Mughniyah as he walked home in Damascus, where Hezbollah enjoys strong ties with and support from the Syrian government.
At the same time, D’Andrea was ramping up the drone programme inside Pakistan. Drones became the preferred counterterrorism tool of President Barack Obama, who personally approved strikes targeting militant leaders.