Mike Morell served the CIA for 33 years, finishing his career as the agency’s Deputy Director and with a stint as Acting Director. He was President Bush’s briefer on the morning of 9/11 and indeed from the moment the 43rd president took office through the end of the fateful year of 2001, and he continued to serve in senior capacities under President Obama. His new book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism written with the assistance of Bill Harlow, is the sort of memoir I imagine George C, Marshall might have written had he served for the first dozen years of this current war. Buy it, read it closely, get copies for your friends. It goes on to “The Necessary Bookshelf,” and I let two GOP presidential campaigns know this morning that, in my opinion, everyone on the campaign needs to read this book. The same message will go to the rest of the campaigns. Here’s today’s interview, the second part of which will air on Monday’s show:
HH: I’m so pleased to begin the program today with Michael Morell. He is the former CIA deputy director, 33 years in the Agency, including time as acting director. He retired as deputy director. He has continued to serve the country, including on the review group of the consequences of the Snowden treachery. Among his many jobs, he was the daily briefer for President Bush. He was with him on 9/11, and our Agency’s representative in Great Britain to MI5 and MI6, finishing at the Agency, as I said, deputy director. He served George Tenet, Porter Goss, Mike Hayden, David Petraeus in senior positions. He served and worked closely with both President Bush and Obama, and this book is on my necessary bookshelf. It is required reading, actually, if you want to be coherent about the war. I think it’s a memoir of the sort I imagine George Marshall would have written if he had been serving in the last 14 years. Michael Morell, welcome to the program, it’s great to have you on.
MM: Hugh, it is great to be with you, thank you for having me.
HH: I want to begin by first thanking Mary Beth, Sarah, Luke and Peter, and through them, all the families of the professionals who have sacrificed I this war. I often thank the families of people in military uniform, but not until I read your book did it really come home how your brutal schedule and the brutal schedule of everyone in the intelligence world is borne by the families.
MM: Yeah, you know, it really is. Thank you for doing that, and I will absolutely pass it along. It really is a family affair for many, many families of CIA officers, so thank you very much for that.
HH: The second thing is thank you. You didn’t quit. A lot of people quit, and I understand the stress. You know, I’m just a broadcast journalist. I don’t have to go to work with the world on my shoulders. I just complain about it. You stayed until you were done, and I’ve often wondered how do people leave in the middle of a war. Now Vice President Cheney told me in this studio, in fact, you only get eight years. But you didn’t. You got 14 years of this war.
MM: I did. I did, and you know, I only left when I thought that it was time for somebody else to step in there and see if they could take it further than I was able to.
HH: On Page 215, “The fundamental tenet of an intelligence officer is to call it like you see it, no matter what your audience wants to hear, no matter the implications for policy, no matter the impact on politics, and no matter the implications for yourself.” Now thus, that’s the way you write this book. I didn’t hear any axes grinding in here, though there are a lot of, you know, blunt, pointed, sharp edges. But do you suppose that ethic is going to last in a world in which everything is becoming politicized?
MM: And that is a great question, and it has to last, because at the end of the day, an intelligence organization is going to be worthless to its country if it becomes politicized, if it starts telling the story a way that a certain political group or policy groups wants to hear it, because once it starts doing that, then it loses complete credibility. So you know, the CIA has always been, has always been, Hugh, kind of the meat in sandwich in policy debates and political debates with each side taking something we say to strengthen their case. And we’ve always had to tell our analysts just ignore that, right? You’re not part of that world, don’t worry about that world, ignore it, just get back to work and call it like you see it. So it’s really, really important that the future leadership of the Agency push that ethic and push it really hard.
HH: Now in that line, I’m curious about your reaction to earlier today, Tsarnaev, the terrorist in Boston, received the death penalty. What’s your reaction to that, Mike Morell?
MM: So you know, he killed, helped kill a whole bunch of people. And I guess my reaction is I wanted him to get the sentence that he didn’t want, because I feel so strongly about what he did. So if he wanted the death sentence, then I’m a little disappointed. If he didn’t want the death sentence, then he got what he deserved. You know, some of these guys want to die, and some of these guys want to die a martyr. Some of them don’t. So I hope he got what he did not want.
HH: Boy, that’s very thoughtful. That’s like your book. You know, I called up two presidential campaigns, one by email and one by phone today, and told them they had to read The Great War Of Our Time. They had to get their candidates this book, because it is so completely anger-free and pointed. But you do want to set the record straight on a few things, including the Benghazi talking points, and we’ll come to that. But even there, it’s remarkable venom-free, even as you push back at Senators Graham and McCain and Attorney General Mukasey. You’re not really, I don’t get a sense that you’re angry at anyone.
MM: No, you know, I’m not angry. I really want to set the record straight. And there’s been, there’s a lot of misrepresentation about there about what exactly happened in Benghazi, and then what happened back here in Washington with regard to the analysis and the talking points and what people were saying. So what I want to do is simply get the facts right. And there’s been so many facts that have been wrong, that I simply want to get them right. And I don’t blame, I don’t blame anybody, any politicians for getting these facts right, because they’re just repeating what they hear in the milieu, right? They’re just repeating what they hear in the cacophony of noise about all this. So I just want to get the facts right. I’m strongly supportive of Trey Gowdy’s committee. I believe that Trey is the kind of guy whose going to follow the facts to where they take him. I’ve made it very clear to the committee that I’m very supportive of them, that I will help them in any way. He wants me to come in and talk. I’m happy to do that. If he wants me to testify, I’m happy to do that. I just want to set the record straight here, and make sure that the CIA, right, is protected in the way we talked about earlier from ever becoming politicized.
HH: And I want the audience to know specifically about this book, the reason you can trust it. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on 9/11 and on the CIA’s actions thereafter on rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques, Mr. Morell writes it’s 6,000 pages, and “the report is not the history of the program that Senator Feinstein said it is. It is one of the worst pieces of analysis that this 33 year veteran of the CIA has ever seen. I believe that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staff produced the committee study, did a great disservice to the committee, the CIA and the country. Senator Feinstein bears significant responsibility for the many flaws in the report.” That’s tough. That’s blunt. But obviously, you felt very passionate about that.
MM: Yeah, you know, this is a very difficult issue, right, and this is something that we in America should actually talk about, and there’s actually four fundamental questions about the enhanced interrogation program. The first is what it legal? And although there are debates about whether the lawyers at the Justice Department at the time made the right call, at the time, they said this was legal. They said this was not torture. And it drives me crazy when people call it torture, because that means that my officers were torturers, and they were not. They wouldn’t do that. They only did it because they were told it was legal. And I’m going to defend those officers to my last breath. The second question, the second question is was it effective? And this is where the Senate reports gets it completely wrong. The Senate report said it wasn’t effective at all, that we got no useful intelligence out of the program. Can you imagine that? No useful intelligence.
HH: And yet, 32 of the 37 detainees, they obviously admit by indirection, gave you intelligence that you used, among them, KSM.
MM: Isn’t that remarkable? I’m absolutely convinced, Hugh, that we got intelligence that saved American lives by using these techniques. I’m absolutely convinced of that. Then the third question is was it necessary, all right? Was it necessary to do these things to get this information from these people? And we’ll never know the answer to that, right? We’ll never know whether some other approach would have worked. But that’s true, as I say, as I talk about in the book, that’s true of almost every major national security decision ever made, right? As I say in the book, was it necessary for President Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus to save the Union? We’ll never know. So that question is unanswerable. And then we get to the fundamental question of morality, right? Was it moral for the United States to do this? And most people, Hugh, think that’s an easy question, and it’s not, because of course, on the one hand, it’s very easy to say the United States of America should never do something like that to another human being. The United States stands for human dignity, for human freedom, etc., etc., etc. But there’s actually a flip side of the coin, Hugh. And the flip side of the coin is, is it moral not to do it when you absolutely believe it is necessary to save American lives?
HH: And that is, you quote your law school professor friend. In fact, I would tell the audience that Michael Morell’s The Great War Of Our Time has in it one of the most sophisticated discussions of the enhanced interrogation techniques and waterboarding I’ve ever read. I’ve been teaching Con Law for 20 years. I’ve had this debate a hundred times. But the law school professor who absolutely rejects it says it’s illegal, then admits to you, then of course, unless I was the president of the United States and somebody told me by using waterboarding, I could save America from a nuclear attack.
MM: Right, and you know, that’s in a sense what happened here, right? People forget, and Senator Feinstein forgets about the context of the times. 3,000 people had just been killed. This was the largest single attack on America ever. We were telling the President that a second wave attack was being planned by al Qaeda. We had credible intelligence on that. We were telling the President that bin Laden was meeting with Pakistani nuclear scientists, right, to try to get his hand on a nuclear weapon. That turned out to be true. We were telling the President that al Qaeda was trying to smuggle a nuclear weapon into New York City. That turned out not to be true, but we didn’t know that at the time. So that’s the context in which the President made his decision. And George Tenent walks in his office and says we’ve captured these guys, who we think know about these plots, about these attacks, and traditional interrogation techniques aren’t working. And Mr. President, here’s what we think we need to do, and we think we need to do it or Americans are going to die.
HH: And that is the context. I’ll be right back, more of Michael Morell this entire hour and more. The Great War Of Our Time is linked at Hughhewitt.com. Stay tuned.
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HH: My audience buys a lot of books, Mr. Morell, so they will be buying this. And when I say the necessary bookshelf, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is on it, very few books on it. The triple agent, you cover that, and I’ll come to that in a little bit, the Khost massacre. There are very few books that go on that shelf, but my hat is off to you.
MM: Thank you.
HH: Before we leave the EIT and rendition program, you did me a service, and you wrote in the book that to merge the two programs, the enhanced interrogation techniques and the detention programs and rendition, is to do a disservice. Each needs to be addressed separately. It had never occurred to me that of course, that’s true.
MM: Right, and you know, the detention program, just to give you an example, right, when we questioned Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and another senior al Qaeda operative about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the guy who turned out to be the courier who took us to Abbottabad, to bin Laden, they lied to us, right? And then they went back to their cell, and they told every, and KSM, KSM told everybody don’t talk about the courier. And the reason he knew he said that, of course, is because we were monitoring him. And the only reason we could monitor him is because he was in our detention, not in somebody else’s.
HH: Yeah, now I want to switch over, that’s one part of an amazing book. I want to go to a different part, and I’ll jump around. On Page 98, there is this paragraph. “On a number of occasions in recent years,” you write, “Secretary Powell has expressed chagrin that no one from the intelligence community has publicly come forward and apologized to him for putting his well-deserved reputation for probity at risk by arming him with bad intelligence to use as the base of his U.N. speech. I am absolutely confident that no one at the CIA intentionally misled him, politicized analysis, or tried to provide anything but the best information. But CIA and broader intelligence community clearly failed him and the American public. So as someone in the chain of command at the time of the Iraq WMD analysis was provided, I would like to use this opportunity to publicly apologize to Secretary Powell,” When I read that, Michael Morell, I said I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in a book before.
MM: I felt pretty strongly about this, because here is a remarkable American, served his country with distinction for a very, very long time, a terrific reputation that has been tarnished, right, by the U.N. presentation based on the information we provided him. And I had heard him say over the years nobody has apologized to me. I had heard him say over the years, you know, it’s going to be on my tombstone, this Iraq WMD thing. so I thought it very important to apologize. I sent him the chapter in advance, Hugh. He called me, and he was deeply, deeply appreciative of the apology.
HH: You were very careful in preparing this book. Mr. Rodriguez, who burned the tapes, did what my old boss, Richard Nixon, didn’t do. You also contacted him and talked to him about telling his story before you told his story. You’re very methodical in preparing this book.
MM: Yeah, I thought it important, because this was an internal CIA personnel matter. You know, I was asked to pass judgment on Jose, who I have the deepest, deepest respect for, who was one of the greatest operations officers of his generation. But Director Petraeus asked me to pass judgment on him with regard to him destroying those tapes. And you know, I didn’t want to tell that story without his permission. And thankfully for the American public, he granted it.
HH: Now there’s a very invaluable section of the book on when we went to war in Iraq. And given the headlines of the last week, Jeb Bush is caught on tenterhooks on this question. I want to read on Page 99, you write about the decision to go into Iraq. “I understand why the President felt it necessary, and it is hard to say that anyone presented with the same facts and burdens would have come to a different conclusion. After all, most of the Congress saw the war as necessary for the same reason that the President did.” All the other stuff is hypothetical, right, Mike Morell? This is the way it was in 2003.
MM: Yeah, I think it’s a totally unfair question, right, for somebody to say knowing what we know now, would you do something. That makes no sense, right? You never know what you know how when you’re making a decision. You only know what you knew then. So I think it’s a much more reasonable question to say if you knew then what President Bush knew, what you would do, and then it gets really tough, right? Because again, it’s all about the context, Hugh, and the context was, again, 3,000 people had just been killed, the CIA telling you that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, including restarting a nuclear weapons program that he had once and had stopped, the CIA telling you that he supports Palestinian terrorist groups, and not al Qaeda, but Palestinian terrorist groups, and the President sitting there thinking you know, I can’t afford to take the risk of this guy use those weapons of mass destruction against me directly, or I can’t take the risk of him giving those weapons to a terrorist group. So when you put the context around anything, right, you look at it in a different light. So I think people have been completely unfair to Governor Bush here. The question is not given what you know now. The question really is given what you know then, that’s the question I think he thought he was answering. And given all the members of Congress at the time who voted to go to war in Iraq and given what the President thought, I think the Governor is on solid footing.
HH: A couple of pages later, you write that the CIA’s judgment about Saddam and WMD was nothing new, nor was it unique. The perception that the Bush administration pushed the intelligence community toward believing that Saddam had WMD is just wrong. No one pushed us. We were already there. The notion that we were telling the White House wanted to hear can easily be debunked. Look at the question of Saddam’s connections to al Qaeda. We held our ground, the Agency held its ground, and refused to go where the intelligence did not take us. On WMD, if we’d believed it was likely Saddam had none, it would have been an act of madness to take the position we did. Following an invasion, a stockpile would either turn up or not. To go to war knowing you’re going to be proving wrong would be insane. That’s the kind of airtight analysis that has been missing from a lot of this hyper-politicized debate.
MM: So for years, for years, there’s been the view out there, Hugh, that CIA, the U.S. intelligence community, was pushed into this judgment by the Bush White House or hardliners in the Bush administration. It’s complete nonsense, as I walk through in the book. You know, I’ll tell you, the only thing you really need to know is that the CIA believed this about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before George Bush ever came to office. We were telling the same story to President Clinton.
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HH: The reason WMD were believed by the Agency there, you put down to analytic creep, hindsight bias, historical bias, confirmation bias, all sorts of biases, and the fact, I added in my notes, Saddam threw out the inspectors, he shot at our planes. But mostly, it was our failure to penetrate Saddam’s inner circle. Are we in the same position right now vis-à-vis Tehran, Michael Morell?
MM: Yeah, so I really, Hugh, for obvious reasons, can’t get into sort of what our capabilities are and our access are against Iran. I’m sure you understand. I can talk about Iraq now, because the war is over and Saddam’s gone. But one of the really important lessons here is that collection, intelligence collection, right, recruiting other human beings to spy for the United States, is really, really important to our country. And the analysts have taken a big, big hit on Iraq WMD. But we never penetrated Saddam’s inner circle to find out what he was really doing and really thinking. And it turns out that what he was doing was getting rid of his weapons of mass destruction program, believing that the CIA was good enough to see it, believing that U.S. policymakers would get rid of the sanctions as a result of being told by the CIA that he had gotten rid of these programs, but not wanting to be so open about it that the Iranians would find out, because he saw those weapons programs as a big deterrent against Iran. So he gave us, at the end of the day, the great irony is he gave us way too much credit.
HH: Interesting. On Page 39 of the book, Mike Morell, you write, “ A National Intelligence Estimate is the community’s premier product, the authoritative voice of the analysts throughout the intelligence community on an issue.” And I have in front of me the November, 2007, Iran Nuclear Intentions And Capabilities NIE, and I went back through it. It’s not in the book. Is that because of the sensitivity of the issues and what you cannot talk about?
MM: No, no, no, not really. The book is really focused on terrorism, the threat from Islamic extremists, and you know, I talk a little bit in the book about the other big national security challenges. Iran is definitely one of those. If I were advising the president right now, one of the things I would make sure that I did, and you know, I’m sure that John Brennan is doing this, is putting it in a larger context, right? And what I mean by that is the nuclear program is not the only problem the United States of America has with Iran.
HH: You did write that.
MM: We have many, many problems with them, right? They are a state, they conduct terrorism as a tool of statecraft, one of the few countries in the world. And they conduct that terrorism against Israel and their other neighbors. They provide support to international terrorist groups. Hezbollah could not exist without the support it gets from Iran. They provide support to insurgencies in the Middle East who are trying to overthrow Sunni Arab governments. The best example of that is what’s going on in Yemen today. They, as a matter of state policy, want to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. So I think it’s just important as you, as any president thinks about the nuclear issue, that you put it in this larger context and say look, we need a broader strategy here to deal with this very significant threat to our allies in the region, and ultimately to us.
HH: Do you think the NIE of 2007 was sound?
MM: So yes, but it was poorly written. So what happened, actually, is it was written for people who had deep understanding of the issue. And it was never, when it was written, it was never meant to have been declassified. But what happened was as soon as it was written, parts of it started to leak. And President Bush decided that you know what, I just don’t want people cherry-picking this thing. I’m going to put the whole key judgments out. And so it went out without ever rewriting it, which was probably the right thing to do, because you wouldn’t want people to think that you were cooking the books. So it went out. But if you were going to write it for the public, you would have written it differently. So that first sentence that you’re probably sitting there looking at, right, really talks about one aspect of the nuclear program, and that’s how do you build a weapon once you have the fissile material. There are actually three parts to a weapons program. One is making the fissile material, the other is fashioning it into a device that will actually explode, and then third is putting it on a delivery vehicle, right, to get it to where you want it to go. And what that first sentence talks about is that second piece…
HH: The first segment, we judge with high confidence that in the fall of 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.
MM: Right, and that’s, they’re talking about that second piece. They obviously didn’t halt the first piece.
HH: Now I’m so curious about this, though, if this deal comes out and there is not anywhere, anytime inspections, would you have any confidence in it at all?
MM: Yeah, so I look at this thing, it’s a great question, Hugh, I look at this thing from the perspective of an intelligence officer. So on the one hand, I’d be giving the president that bigger context. On the other hand, I would be looking at it from the perspective of Mr. President, what can I verify for you, and what can’t I, because whatever deal gets signed, this president and the next president is going to look to the CIA and to the intelligence community to tell them are the Iranians keeping to their word.
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HH: The frustrations of getting a great talker in the middle, and a great expert in the middle of a radio break are immense. You were saying when we went to break one of the dangers of this deal is that the successor to President Obama is going to get stuck with a deal where they can’t really guarantee anytime, anywhere inspections.
MM: Well, what I’m saying is I don’t know that, yet, because I don’t know what the deal is going to look like. You know, what we say the deal is, is not quite what the Iranians say the deal is. So right now, I don’t know what the deal is. But what I’m telling you, Hugh, is that if I were advising the President, I would be focused on your very issue. And I would be telling the President I can verify this, this and this, but I can’t verify that, that and that. Is that okay with your or not?
HH: Interesting. Now I want to go back to some key segments in The Great War Of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From al Qaeda To ISIS, a must-read book of the year, I think, on the war on terror. First, just a reminder of the cost. Mike Spann’s death at Mazar-e-Sharif on November 26, ’01. You brought along to your daily briefing with the President the cable. George Tenet wasn’t sure he’d want to read it. President Bush read every word, and it was deeply moving. I found deeply moving your account of visiting Khost, where on December 30th, 2009, seven CIA officers were killed, many others were injured. Joby Warrick has been on this program. He wrote the book, The Triple Agent.
HH: You knew Jessica Matthews well. I did not know that there’s a memorial there that says, and I heard the voice of the Lord saying whom shall I send and who will go for Us? Then he said here I am, send me. And I didn’t know the story of the Harold Brown services outside of Boston, or attending the Scott Robertson funeral. He left a pregnant wife. I’m glad you put these details in. Nobody knows this stuff, Mike Morell.
MM: Yeah, I thought it just very important. That last chapter, Hugh, you’re reading from the last chapter there. To me, that’s the most important chapter, because I really want Americans to understand the dedication and the sacrifice that these CIA officers, particularly those who serve overseas, make for their country.
HH: Now I do want to go to, I think, a very important chapter as well is what do we do. And just a couple of days ago, Jeb Bush ran into a woman yelling at him that his brother created ISIS. And I thought you know, it’s so uninformed, we don’t create ISIS. But America has a choice. Either, you write this repeatedly, we combat Islamist fanaticism everywhere and with great pressure, or it regroups wherever it can. Was it a mistake to leave without a status of forces agreement in ’11, Mike Morell?
MM: Yeah, so I’m just going to be a little careful there, because you know, I wouldn’t want the U.S. military to be somewhere without a status of forces agreement, right? I wouldn’t want to put U.S. servicemen at risk. But I will tell you this. I will tell you this, that when we left in 2011, al Qaeda in Iraq was at its weakest point. And as soon as we left, they started regrouping. They started growing stronger for two reasons. One is that the military pressure and the intelligence pressure on them was reduced, because the U.S. capabilities weren’t there to assist. And then secondly, they strengthened, because former Prime Minister Maliki made a whole bunch of bad political decisions that ended up alienating Sunnis, disenfranchising them, and you have moderate Sunnis joining al Qaeda in Iraq. And we were telling this story all along, Hugh. And then al Qaeda in Iraq goes into Syria, you know, to help fight the Syrian Civil War. And it changed their name. That’s when they changed their name to ISIS. And they get even stronger, because they get their hands on recruits. They get their hands on money. And they get their hands on a whole bunch of Syrian government weapons by overrunning weapons depots. And then they come back and they have this blitzkrieg across Iraq. And we were reporting all of that. I think what surprised us, though, is how quickly the Iraqi Security Forces just melted in the face of the ISIS group.
HH: I’ve got to say, it’s very chilling. You write in this Chapter 13 there are between 3,500 and 5,000 jihadists wannabes who have traveled to Syria and Iraq. They have easy access to the U.S. homeland. And there are things we have found there, including a treasure trove of ISIS docs left on a 2014 seized computer that are all about the biological weapons, and God’s okay to wipe everybody out. I mean, it’s the sort of stuff of nightmare and bad thrillers.
MM: Yeah, I think it’s very important for people to remember that Osama bin Laden said that it is the duty of jihadists to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. And he also said that if he ever did, he would use them. And he was actively trying to get his hands on a Pakistani nuclear weapon, and he was actively trying to produce anthrax. And ISIS, as I point out in the book, ISIS has talked about getting its hands on weapons of mass destruction as well, and they’ve made it very clear, like Osama bin Laden did, that if they ever do, they’ll use it.
HH: There’s also some amazing things in here. I’m surprised that you were allowed to take the latest in terrorist assassination technology into the Oval. And by the way, for the benefit of the audience, he does not disclose the details of what that is.
MM: They wouldn’t let me.
HH: I just thought wow, there’s a lot in this book I didn’t know, and I read all this stuff. I also did not know about Ibahim al-Asiri, who is, I guess in your world, public enemy number one?
HH: Have we killed him between the time the book came out and today?
MM: No, no. No, we have not. We have not gotten to him, Hugh, and you know, for the folks listening, he is al Qaeda in Yemen’s number one bomb maker. He was responsible for the underwear bomb which nearly brought down an airliner on Christmas Day in 2009. He was responsible for the printer cartridge bomb, which was hiding a bomb inside a printer cartridge in ways that made it very difficult to discover. He was responsible for the non-metallic suicide vests which was designed to bring down an aircraft. And he was even tinkering around with surgically implanting explosives in a human being. So this is a very dangerous guy. And every day that goes on, he becomes more dangerous, because he’s training other guys on how to build these very, very sophisticated explosives.
HH: You also write there’s another bad guy, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was broken out of prison on February 6, ’06, after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula spent two months and a hundred and fifty yards of digging from a women’s latrine to get him out. One difference, one day makes all the difference in the world, you wrote.
MM: yeah, I think one of our lessons in dealing with terrorist groups is to understand that they are both very fragile and very resilient. And what I mean by that is once you find them and locate them, it’s pretty easy to weaken them. That’s the fragility. But they’re also very resilient, right? It doesn’t take a lot of money. It doesn’t take a lot of guys. It doesn’t take a lot of space. And so once that pressure comes off, they bounce back very quickly.
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HH: Mr. Morell, on Page 293, you talk about the treacherous Snowden. He’s just a traitor, and you write, “I believe that the Snowden disclosures will go down in history as the greatest compromise of classified information ever. Period. Full stop. The damage done has already been significant. And it will continue to grow.” And I only spent a year with SCI and a couple of years on the fringes of it. But even in that, in counterintelligence at the Department of Justice, it had to be a massive blow that the average American has no idea what he did.
MM: He basically, as I say in the book, backed up a tractor trailer and filled it up full of documents, 99.9% of them that he had not read, and 99.9% of them that he didn’t know anything about, and gave them away, right? And we don’t know, we only know what the media has published. We don’t know how many of those documents have gotten into the hands of Russian intelligence or Chinese intelligence or other intelligence services, but you can bet a good chunk has. We don’t know, we don’t fully understand, yet, the damage. We haven’t even fully seen the damage yet, but it is extensive, and will be extensive.
HH: I have to say, this may be my confirmation bias which we talked about earlier, but your assessment of Snowden jibes with mine, which is he’s a megalomaniac, and he has a very high opinion of himself, and he lives in something of a fantasy world, because you know, the Russians just pimped him, and the Chinese used him, and they probably have everything he had. And you know, he holds these press conferences on things. He’s just not that bright of a guy.
MM: And so your assessment, Hugh, is exactly mine, right? His motivation was not to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. His motivation was to be seen by the whole world as a smart guy, right, and that’s what he didn’t get, right? He didn’t get that acclimation at the CIA and the NSA, and that’s what he so craved, right? He so craved that, and here’s what’s interesting, Hugh. Much of the media, much of the media, you’re not, but much of the media is giving him exactly what he wants.
HH: No, he needs to be branded. A minute to the break, and then we go into our longer form. The 215 program, which the House voted to discontinue, and the email program, I’m big supporters of them for the reasons you talk about. But do you think we have a prayer of persuading the public after Snowden that these are passive things that can be used with court orders to the protection of Americans?
MM: Yeah, so as you know, and as you stated up front, I was on President Obama’s review group on this. And I do believe there’s a way to both keep the program, which is very important, it fills one of the gaps that existed prior to 9/11. I do think it’s important to keep the program, but I also do think it’s important to convince Americans that we’re not reading their emails and listening to their phone calls. And I think that the way to bridge that is to not have the government hold the data, but to have somebody else hold the data. It could be a third entity, third party, private entity, or it could be the phone companies, and to require a court order every time. That was our recommendation to the President. He accepted it. The intelligence community actually said this will work for us.
HH: It would. Of course, it’s just connect the dots when you need them, and there’s a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. I used to prepare applications for warrants all the time.
MM: Exactly, exactly.
HH: So tht’s…
MM: So I think it’s possible to do both here.
HH: I hope we get that done.
— – – – –
HH: Now I want to switch over to your time with the President, because I found this as fascinating. Within the story of the war is the story of a family and the story of a young analyst. And as you wrote on Page 26, if you are a young CIA analyst, your dream job is to be the daily President. You started in December of 2000. You went with him through the worst day of the country since Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and of course, you stayed with him through the end of that year. Wow, what a crushing, brutal burden, I mean, on the President, but you were up at what, 3:00, 12, 2:30, 2 in the Morning every day?
MM: Yeah, so before 9/11, I got up at 3 to get to work at 4 for an 8:00 briefing. And after 9/11, I got up at 12:30 to get to work at 1:30 for an 8:00 briefing. So yeah, it was tough.
HH: I’ve done morning radio, but when do you go to bed?
MM :So you know, I was kind of lucky, because my kids were very small at the time. So I kind of went to bed when they went to bed. You know, it was actually a good job for that, because I actually spent more time with them than I would have otherwise.
HH: Well, that part makes sense to me. 15 minutes after you left Barksdale on 9/11, the President asked you bluntly for your best guess. You hadn’t, you told him I haven’t got any intelligence, yet, but you said al Qaeda, because Iraq and Iran are the only other two state actors that could do this, and neither has much to gain, and both had plenty to lose from attacking the U.S. This is a hard question. Iran is run by, in part, end time fanatics, people who gain eternity by martyrdom. Is that worrisome enough for you to drive policy here or in Israel?
MM: So I think the main thing that we have to worry about with regard to Iran is its desire to be the hegemonic power in the Middle East, its desire to reestablish the old Persian empire. That’s what they want to do. So all those things I talked about before, the terrorism they practice, the terrorism they support, the insurgencies they support, and the reason they want a nuclear weapon, the reason they want Israel to go away, the reason they want to push us out of the region is so that they can be the power and call the shots. And that’s what our Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, are pushing back against. And it’s not, Hugh, it’s not a Shiia thing. It’s not an Iranian thing. It’s a Persian thing. it goes way back in Iranian history. The Shah wanted to do this. It is not just the Supreme Leader. This is deeply rooted in Iranian society.
HH: But you know, the Khomeinists, I read like The Persian Night by, I can’t remember his name, but lots of Iranian stuff, and there is that Khomeinist theology that wanted to erase everything Persian and make it Shiia end times, 12th Imam stuff. That’s not successful, in your view?
MM: yes, and not this piece of it, right, not this piece of it, not the piece that says we should be, we’re the most important country in the region and we should be dominant.
MM: Now there is no doubt about it, Hugh, that I think, I think Islamic extremism began in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah, and the taking of the U.S. Embassy. That’s when this whole thing began, the whole kind of concept of violence for what they perceive to be religious purposes. This goes all the way back, I think, to Khomeini and his revolution.
HH: Now let me talk a little bit about the presidents you’ve served. First of all, as to George W. Bush, you found him a normal guy, informal and approachable. His father is very funny. He makes a cameo on Page 25, because former presidents get briefed if they want. He came into a briefing with 43. After a bit, he gets up and leaves and says I’ve done this before, I’m going to go play with the grandkids. But these are just men, right? These are men that have to cope, I don’t know how anyone does this.
MM: It’s, you know, there’s no doubt in my mind it’s the hardest job in the world. There isn’t, there are very few people who think you’re doing it well. Half the country likes you, half the country doesn’t. And you only get the hardest problems, right? The easy stuff is long, long gone by the time it comes into your office. So you know, it is an extremely tough job.
HH: Now you say of the two presidents, President Bush sometimes acted too quickly, President Obama sometimes moves too slowly. Now you didn’t say, answer this question, though. Which is the greater problem in a president?
MM: Yeah, it’s hard to say, right, because everybody is different. Everybody has their own style. You know, the value of taking a little bit longer is you get more information, you get more input. The cost of waiting a little longer is, you know, maybe you wait too long. So I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong, and I’m not just dodging the question. I’m not sure it’s right or wrong. I will tell you one thing. I learned something very important from Bill Casey when he was the director. I was a very young analyst, but I used to hear him say over and over again, you know, a bad decision is better than no decision. A quick decision is better than no decision. So certainly, you know, no decision is bad. But I don’t want to really say which is better, right, waiting a little big longer, or moving too quickly.
HH: Did you ever meet Bill Casey, by the way?
MM: I never met him. I just listened to him speak to the troops.
HH: Yeah, my parish in Washington in ’83-’89 was, I think it’s called Blessed Sacrament up near the Vice President’s house.
MM: Sure, sure, absolutely.
HH: And that’s Casey’s parish, and he showed up one time to a talk I was giving. I have never been so intimidated in my life as when you had Bill Casey in the back of the room listening to me talk about something or other. You write about the 9/11 Commission, saying, and my buddy, my boss from the White House years, Fred Fielding, was on that, so I have to tread carefully here. The 9/11 attacks resulted from a failure of imagination. You reject this very forcefully. “Imagination without substantial facts to back it up has never been, and will never be the basis for policy decisions, nor should it be.
HH: Can you explain that to people?
MM: Yeah, so I’ve never bought this idea that you know, the intelligence community and the policy community never imagined, right, what was possible on 9/11. And if we somehow had imagined it, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s ridiculous. And the story I tell in the book is look, if I had walked into the President’s office, the Oval Office, and I had said Mr. President, my analyst can imagine the following, that 19 guys are going to train themselves on how to fly aircraft, not take off, not land, but how to fly aircraft, they’re going to do it secretly in the United States, they’re going to get box cutters through security in an airport, they’re going to take over aircraft using those box cutters, they’re going to break into cockpits because the cockpit doors aren’t what they should be, and they’re going to take over the planes not to hijack them, but to actually crash them into buildings, to use them in missiles in an attack on the United States. I think he would have said Michael, that’s really nice, and I’m sure your analysts can imagine a lot of things. But what I really want to know is what is al Qaeda planning? Could you please get me some intelligence?
HH: Yeah, it’s a very well-argued piece in that part. By the way, this is a daily thing. You didn’t do this on Sundays, did you?
MM: No, but six days a week.
HH: Six days a week, and you do it after the Vice President’s been in there. And the Vice President attends most of these briefings.
MM: Yes, yes.
HH: I wanted to ask you about Scooter Libby, for whom I had a love of admiration. He plays a role in the book, The Great War Of Our Time, pushing, pushing, pushing for you guys to find a connection between al Qaeda and Saddam.
HH: Ultimately, you don’t. And I was saying to myself he’s doing his job, and you did yours, because he made you. You’re quite able to write today with certainty there was no connection, because Scooter Libby pushed you that hard. Isn’t that fair?
MM: Well, yes and no. So absolutely, it is the right, even the responsibility of policy makers to push, right? And nobody pushed harder in asking really, really good questions than the Vice President. And let me tell you something right up front. I’ve met a lot of politicians in my day. Nobody cared more about the security of the country than Vice President Cheney. Nobody. So absolutely, they had a right to push and ask questions. And what I think is the Vice President and Scooter Libby, on behalf of the Vice President, really worried about there being a connection, you know, deeply concerned about there being a connection between a country that’s got weapons of mass destruction and an enemy, al Qaeda, that has already attacked us in the homeland. So they had every reason to deeply worry about a possible connection and push us on it, absolutely right. But once we made a call, Hugh, once we made a call, I thought Scooter Libby went too far in telling us to withdraw it, because it was wrong.
HH: All right, some free range questions here. Do you read spy novels, or do they get in the way? Like I have Daniel Silva, Brad Thor, Alex Berenson, I used to have the late Vince Flynn on every time they wrote a book. Do you read them?
MM: No, I don’t, because you know, I see, because I know what’s kind of true, right? And so I don’t, I have to tell you.
HH: You talk sports with various people in this book as you pass the time. Are you a Redskins fan?
MM: So you know, I started out as a Browns fan. I grew up in Cleveland.
HH: Hey, that’s what I was getting to. I was going to call you on it, because I’m from Warren, Ohio, and I was going to call you on it.
MM: Oh, yeah, that’s great.
HH: Yeah, so…
MM: So I started out as a Browns fan, but when they moved to Baltimore, and there was no team left in Cleveland, you know, I started becoming a Ravens fan.
HH: Oh, God.
MM: So I’m a Browns-Ravens-Redskins fan.
HH: This might not, there goes the credibility of the deputy director of the CIA. He rooted for the Ravens. Oh, that’s terrible. The airplane travel, I mean, you’ll start, you’re on it for hours and hours. How do you pass the time?
MM: So I pass the time, right, by preparing for the next briefing. So there’s a secure communications capability, right, on Air Force One, and I passed the time by reading materials that my guys would send to me and prepare, or just read novels or watch movies. I remember, this is not in the book, but I remember watching Caddyshack with President Bush coming back from a trip to China.
HH: Have you met the Dalai Lama? Do you have that going for you?
HH: Have you met the Dalai Lama? That’s a line in Caddyshack.
MM: No, I haven’t. I haven’t.
HH: Okay, so you haven’t got that going for you.
MM: But I have to tell you, it’s tough to watch Caddyshack with a president, because you don’t know if you should laugh at certain points until you make sure he’s laughing.
HH: Well, I also was impressed with the description of operational security around the bin Laden raid. And you had to drop your Caps tickets off at the gate for your wife, and you couldn’t make the last choral performance at Visitation Prep. You were close to a divorce, but she understood afterwards.
MM: Yeah, and it was a good thing the President decided to tell the American people that night, or it would have been hell for me.
HH: All right, now you were also in London. And one of your many jobs was to be our liaison in Great Britain to MI5, MI6 on the day of 7/7, their terrible attack. And on Page 120, you write this, and I think it’s so necessary for the American people to read this. “12 hours after those attacks killed 57, you got on a British bus. This was just 12 hours after a suicide bomber had blown up an identical vehicle fewer than two and a half miles away. Yet the bus was full and no one seemed nervous. No one was eyeing the other passengers suspiciously. This was the legendary British keep calm and carry on attitude at work, born of surviving the blitz by Hitler and hundreds of IRA bombings over the years.” Do you think we have enough of that in this country, Mike Morell?
MM: No, we don’t at all, right? There’s a sense among the American people that the government should be able to stop every attack. And that’s, you know, that’s an impossible bar to meet. In any war, there are battles you’re going to win, and there are battles you’re going to lose. And some of those battles are going to be attacks right here in the homeland. And Americans need to understand that, and that’s one of the things that I hope that comes across from exactly the story that you read, because the British people understand that. The British people understand that you can have some successful attacks, and you can still win the war.
HH: What do you think now, the people listening who are young, who should want to go to work for the CIA?
MM: So I want people to want to go to work for the CIA who are absolutely passionate about the security of their country, and who are willing to work incredibly hard, long hours, live overseas, some pretty nasty places in order to do really interesting work to protect the country. That’s who I want.
HH: Was it fair, in your view, to convict these contractors recently who got in the gunfight and killed some innocents in Iraq?
MM: These are the Blackwater guys/
MM: Yeah, I mean, so Hugh, they went well beyond what they should have done. There was some significant poor judgment there, negligence. So yeah, I think probably it was the right outcome.
HH: One of the advantages of reading The Great War Of Our Time is that you clearly are non-partisan, but you also, no one can believe we went to war for oil or for Halliburton or for domination after you read this. But yet, we need to get that message out for your de-radicalization prescription to work, right?
MM: Yeah, on this question of non-partisanship, somebody asked me the other day, you know, are you auditioning in this book, right, to be, to come back in a future administration? And I laughed, and I said look, I criticized Republicans on Benghazi, I criticized Democrats on enhanced interrogation techniques, and I criticized myself in a whole bunch of places. So no, this is not an audition.
HH: But what about the, you do talk about the need to de-radicalize, the hardest part of the war. Does it help our efforts when we have the fringe on both the far right and the far left spinning these bizarre theories of what happened, because what I love about your book is it’s just the way it is. People tried to do their best. Sometimes, they get caught up in the partisanship like the Feinstein committee. But most of the time, on the day to day basis, the people on the pointy end of the spear are trying to keep Americans alive.
MM: You know, and that’s true of almost everybody that we’re talking about here, and I would even put Senator Feinstein in that camp. I think that every single person that I worked with, senior level person, senior policy makers, politicians, presidents, vice presidents, that everybody wanted to do the right thing for the country, you know, and go back to that sort of a Iraq-al Qaeda story about the Vice President, right? It was his passion for protecting the country that led him to push so hard, and led Scooter to go over the line a little bit, right? And so everybody was trying to do the right thing, and one of the reasons I wrote the book is because I wanted people to know that CIA, at least, is an organization that gets many, many, many things right, but it gets some things wrong, like any organization. You know, we’re not perfect, but we’re not horrible. And we’re people who are just trying to do their job. And when something doesn’t go quite right, it’s not because somebody screwed up on purpose, or it’s not because somebody’s intent was bad. It’s just because the world is the way the world is.
HH: Now I want to finish by talking about Benghazi. And you have quite an extensive detailed note here. I am actually not one of those people who care much about the talking points. I actually didn’t know any of this back and forth. I didn’t know you’d been impugned.
MM: Probably bored you, then.
HH: Well, I went through it thinking to myself that’s not the issue. The issue is what did the President know and when did he know it, what did he do, and what the Secretary of State know and when did she know and what did she do it, not what happened over at CIA between you and Petraeus and everyone. I always thought you guys were kind of feeding information as best you could, and you weren’t helping the White House cover up, but that they may have been, they may have been acting politically where they ought to have been acting as leader of the free world and the secretary of State. What did you make of the Secretary of State having a private server in her house?
MM: So I don’t think that was a very good judgment. I don’t know who gave her that advice, but it was not good advice, and you know, she’s paying a price for it now. Yeah, it was not good.
HH: As a professional matter, do you believe that at least one or perhaps many foreign intelligence servers, services have everything that went to and from that server?
MM: So I think that foreign intelligence services, the good ones, the good ones, have everything on any unclassified network that the government uses, whether it’s a private server or a public one. They’re that good.
HH: So that’s a yes?
HH: The most interesting page in this book is when the Libyan intelligence chief attempts to convert you to Islam.
MM: You like that?
HH: I did. You know, that’s good writing, by the way. I don’t know Bill Harlow, who helped you with this, but he’s very good.
MM: He’s terrific. He’s terrific.
HH: Yeah, he’s terrific. And so I’ll close this way. You worked for Tenet, Goss, Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, by the way, great portrait of Panetta. I want to interview him.
HH: David Petraeus, and you worked alongside of Mr. Brennan. Who’s the closest to George Smiley?
MM: Oh, gosh, probably Tenent. Probably Tenet, great personality, absolutely great personality, great to be around, taught me a tremendous amount, deep, deep, deep, deep respect for him.
HH: And the thinking, George Smiley was wheels within wheels within wheels, right? Is that George Tenet?
MM: Yes, yes, yes.
HH: And then I always ask people involved in the war, did the invasion of Iraq lead, in your judgment, to Libya’s giving up the WMD? Berlusconi said it did. But what do you think?
MM: Oh, I think so. I think so. Well, no, let me take that back. So I think, I think there’s multiple explanations. One explanation is that yes, he was concerned that we would ultimately do to him what we did to Saddam. But I think there was a bigger issue. I think Qaddafi came to realize that as long as he was going down the path of WMD, and in particular, nuclear weapons, that his country was going to go nowhere. And I think he started to realize what his legacy was going to be in terms of the horrible economy and the horrible society that he was going to leave his people. So I think it was really kind of the combination of the two. As he matured, as he got older, and he started thinking about his legacy, he said this is not what I want it to be.
HH: But it’s a nightmare now. I mean, well, I guess this is a, again, it’s unfair. It’s hypothetical would you do now if you’d known then, but thank God for al-Sisi, and I say that and my Egyptian friends get mad at me, because he’s not Mr. Human Rights. But the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Jordanians are getting their act together against ISIS and the Iranians, and Libya is becoming their fallback state, isn’t it?
MM: Yes, it is. Libya is a mess, right? Libya is awash with extremists. I think you probably saw the part of the book where when Sisi overthrew Morsi…
MM: …that one of the Arab ambassadors in Washington called me and said what do you think, and I said this is a great day for Egypt, right?
MM: He’s going to save Egypt, which wasn’t the politically correct answer in Washington at the time. I think we’ve now come around, and we’re now being fully supportive of President Sisi. You talked about the radicalization problem earlier. You know, he and King Abdullah of Jordan are really leading the way and starting to have a conversation with their people about this whole question of violence and Islam and their societies, and I think that’s really, really important.
HH: And does the country, America, get the Muslim Brotherhood, yet? After reading, I always send people to read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright so they can understand Qutb and the rest of it.
MM: It’s a great book. It’s a great book.
HH: Do you think we understand the Brothers?
MM: I mean, I think CIA does. I think the U.S. government does. I don’t think the American people do, because I think there’s been a portrait, right, drawn of them that they are only political, right, that it’s only a political movement. But it is really more than that, right? They want to come to power not just through democratic means, but through any means that they can.
HH: And a very last question, you’re now working for Beacon Global Strategies. One of your partners is Philippe Reines. Now I have partners at my law firm, which is Arent Fox, who are not, you know, they’re left wing Democrats, and I get along fine with them. Philippe is Hillary’s guy. And so…
MM: Yeah, yeah.
HH: How’s he like this book?
MM: Yeah, so I don’t know.
MM: I don’t know. He hasn’t told me, yet.
HH: He may not be talking to you, actually.
MM: Look, let me say a couple things about Beacon, and I’m actually talking to you from Beacon right now. You know, all four of the partners, and there’s four. Philippe is one. All four of the partners are public servants. They’ve served their country. Now three of them tend to the left, and one of them tends to the right. Michael Allen is one of the partners. He was in George Bush’s White House. He was Mike Rogers’ staff director on the House Intelligence Committee. He was going to be Governor Romney’s transition guy for the intelligence community. So, and if you look at our website here and all the advisors we have, you’ll see a lot of political balance. So like any organization, right, there are people who tend one way and who tend another. And I think much, much, much, too, has been made of my joining the firm here, and what does that mean about Michael’s future, and what does that mean about Michael’s relationship with Hillary. And you know, at the end of the day, it’s all nonsense, and I kind of ignore it and just go on with my life.
HH: I’m just asking because I’m thinking about sending you a resume, because I like the book so much. I think I’d like to work for you.
MM: Thank you.
HH: Michael Morell, this is a great work, and a very great public service. I hope everybody reads it. Thanks for spending so much time with me.
MM: You’re welcome, great to be with you.
HH: Take care.
End of interview.