WASHINGTON – Harrison Ford has filled John McLaughlin's (search) job in the movies, but in real life, the CIA's bespectacled, cerebral deputy director has stayed so well-cloaked that few outside the shadows of intelligence gathering know him.
That started to change last week with President Bush's announcement that McLaughlin would take over as the agency's acting director in July when George Tenet (search) leaves the job after seven years.
McLaughlin moves up at a critical time for the Central Intelligence Agency and 14 other agencies that make up the nation's intelligence apparatus.
Senior members at various intelligence agencies caution that they see a series of high-profile events this summer that could become attractive targets for terrorists. They worry that Al Qaeda network or its allies might try to strike the United States in a way to replicate the political and economic impact of March's train bombings in Madrid, Spain.
Officials close to McLaughlin describe him as meticulous, professorial and cerebral, in many ways a contrast to the more gregarious Tenet. John Brennan, director of the federal Terrorist Threat Integration Center (search), has called McLaughlin Tenet's alter ego.
Tenet, who sometimes chews unlit cigars, is known for throwing an arm around a colleague walking down the hall.
McLaughlin, called "Merlin" by his peers, can be spotted walking around with rubber bands on his wrists, used for impromptu tricks. He can turn a $1 bill into other denominations. He wowed students at a Northern Virginia high school by tearing a Washington Post into a dozen pieces, then putting it back together seamlessly.
As Tenet announced his impending departure to CIA personnel, he described his replacement as "a man of magical warmth."
"He will be a great acting director," Tenet said.
Some in Washington have said privately, however, that the man who has been referred to as "the godfather of analysis" might have been too close to the overstated intelligence estimates on Iraq to be an effective director.
One congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some lawmakers have expressed concerns about McLaughlin's credibility in handling future situations.
The focus also will be on McLaughlin's relationship with Bush, including whether McLaughlin continues a somewhat unusual trend established in the Bush administration: the CIA director giving the president his regular morning intelligence briefings.
McLaughlin has filled in for Tenet for this assignment when the director was unavailable. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said McLaughlin is someone the president "knows well and trusts."
"The most important thing is that there's a fine professional in John McLaughlin, who has the president's support and confidence," Rice told "Fox News Sunday."
A Virginia resident, 61-year-old McLaughlin is married with two children.
He graduated in 1964 from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He earned a master's degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1966 with a specialty in European affairs. In 1968-1969, he served in Southeast Asia as an Army infantry officer during the Vietnam War.
Since 1972, he has worked his way up the ranks of the CIA. He was an analyst for European and Russian issues before rising to deputy director for intelligence in 1997. By 2000, he had become Tenet's right hand, as deputy director of central intelligence.
McLaughlin speaks admirably of the agency's operatives and analysts.
"We are forced each day to take risks — in both operations and analysis. And by definition, with risk comes the possibility of mistake, even failure," he said in a September speech to the National Conference of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "That is the nature of our business. The certain and the easy we leave to others."
McLaughlin told the audience that Ford has played his job in the movies. Ford's character, Jack Ryan, was the CIA's acting deputy director for intelligence in "Clear and Present Danger."
"The real thing is better," McLaughlin told his audience. "Rarely as flashy, never as lucrative, but vastly more rewarding."