McLaughlin Has Long Resume Up His Sleeve

Times Staff Writer

Soon-to-be acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin has achieved near-legendary status during his 32 years at the spy agency, and not just for his low-key intensity and reputation as one of its best-ever intelligence analysts.

It’s also the magic tricks.

McLaughlin, 61, is a world-class amateur magician whose sleight-of-hand has dazzled U.S. presidents and foreign leaders as well as crowds of children at a rural Virginia fair where he performs every year. In CIA circles, his nickname is “Merlin.”

Close associates say all of the traits that make McLaughlin such a good magician will also serve him -- and the CIA -- well when he takes over from George J. Tenet on July 11.


Every trick appears effortless for McLaughlin, whether it is turning a $1 bill into a $100 bill inches away from astonished onlookers, or causing a deck of cards to levitate and split in two with a wave of his hand.

But the tricks, McLaughlin said in a recent interview, succeed only because of countless hours of intense preparation, study and practice that onlookers never see.

“It’s the seriousness with which he pursues the skill, the preparation beforehand, that make it look easy,” says John Gannon, once a top aide to McLaughlin at the CIA and now staff director for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

“I don’t know anyone who works harder or is more committed than John is,” he said. “He’s not casual about anything.”

President Bush named McLaughlin as acting director after Tenet announced his resignation Thursday.

Gannon and other intelligence experts in and out of government said McLaughlin would make an excellent director on a permanent basis, should Bush decide to appoint him.


“I think it’s almost his destiny,” Gannon said. “I couldn’t think of a better person for the job. John not only ‘serves up’ very well, but he also genuinely cares about the people working for him. He’s a superb analyst, a substantive leader and an envelope pusher and creative thinker.”

But his closeness to Tenet and his role as the CIA’s No. 2 man might weigh against his chances. Like Tenet, he has endured criticism for the CIA’s failure to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and for making claims that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, triggering the war in Iraq.

McLaughlin became Tenet’s deputy in June 2000, 28 years after joining the intelligence agency. He came up through the CIA’s analysis side, not its operational division that does the undercover and clandestine work.

He spent the early part of his career on European, Russian and Eurasian issues. He later worked at the State Department’s Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs, where he was responsible for following European relations with the Middle East, Central America and Africa.

More recently, as deputy director for intelligence, he was responsible for the analysis of political, economic and military events worldwide.

He represented the intelligence community on numerous diplomatic delegations worldwide, with Tenet and on his own. He also beefed up the CIA’s analytic capabilities, creating a special CIA career track that enables analysts to rise to very senior rank without branching out into management.


McLaughlin graduated from Wittenberg University in Ohio in 1964 and later received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a specialty in European affairs. He also served three years in the Army, with a tour in Southeast Asia from 1968 to 1969.

Several associates said McLaughlin was very close to Tenet, but in many ways his opposite. Where Tenet is affable and emotional, McLaughlin is even-keeled and more reserved.

“George has often described him as the smartest man in America,” said a senior CIA official who is close to both men.

“He is smart but avuncular, very decent, soft-spoken, extraordinarily nice but with a deep knowledge of a wide range of subjects,” the official added. “He was a perfect counterpoint to Tenet.”

Like others who know him, Gannon said that in making the case against Iraq, McLaughlin was trying to work with the faulty intelligence at hand.

“It was not an airtight case. There were gaps,” Gannon said. “John is such a professional [that] he tried to make the best case that could be made. He didn’t use his magic tricks on the evidence.”