Black Jew Nominated to Lead Biden’s CIA
Darrell Blocker attends the Mosaic Federation Gala Against Human Slavery at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City on Sept. 10, 2019.
In his 28 years at the CIA, Darrell Blocker figured out a reliable strategy for recruiting covert agents.
“A person like myself is always looking for that anomaly, that person who doesn’t feel like they’re being listened to, that person who doesn’t feel like they fit,” Blocker said in a talk early this year at the International Spy Museum. “That’s who I’m looking for as a potential spy.”
In some ways, he could have been talking about himself. Blocker, known in the intelligence community as “the spy whisperer,” is reportedly on a shortlist of candidates President-elect Joe Biden is considering to lead the CIA, the country’s international intelligence service. If selected, he would be the agency’s first Black director — and the third Jewish one.
Raised in a churchgoing Air Force family, Blocker began exploring Judaism in college and formally converted in 2017, just before retiring from the CIA as the most senior Black officer in the Directorate of Operations, a division once known as the clandestine service.
Blocker declined to comment on the reports that he is being considered for the CIA’s top position, starting with one last week in Fox News. But in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he described a passion for questioning authority that led him to success in the field and to embrace Judaism.
His father was in the Air Force and until he was 11, and Blocker lived in Japan, Italy and Texas before moving to his family’s ancestral home in Augusta, Georgia, after his father retired. In Augusta, in 1975, when the notion of integration was still fragile in the South, he was the only Black kid who would move between groups of white and Black children on the playground.
“I was always the small group,” he said, the middle man, the broker of friendships. “You’re kind of in between both worlds always fighting and juggling and cajoling and calling.”
Blocker wore a chai pendant starting in college, and although he would wait decades to convert, he made his identification with Jews clear. He was an Air Force analyst for four years and applied for a job at the CIA around 1989. His entrance essay, he said, was about the Palestinian uprising taking place at that time.
“It was the Intifada, so of course I wrote about that,” he said. “And mostly along the lines of every nation in history that has fought and won actual territory, actual ground, them giving it back — it just hasn’t happened.”
As he rose through the ranks — serving in 10 countries, including Senegal, Uganda and Pakistan, and becoming chief of the CIA’s Africa division — he did not hide his affection for Judaism. In Senegal, he hung an Israeli flag in his house.
Biden’s team has said he is seeking a diverse government that “looks like America.” Avril Haines, a former CIA deputy director who is Biden’s pick for director of national intelligence, would be the first woman in the job. The president-elect is reportedly also eyeing another former CIA deputy director, David Cohen, who is Jewish, for CIA director.
The agency has had two Jewish directors before: James Schlesinger, who was born Jewish but converted as an adult to Christianity, ran it for six months in 1973, and John Deutch led it from May 1995 to December 1996.
If Biden settles on Blocker, he’ll be elevating someone who thinks of the CIA in terms not so different from how he thinks of Judaism.