As deputy director and two-time acting director of the CIA, 33-year agency veteran Michael Morell was close to every major national security development of the past two decades.
His recently published book, The Great War of Our Time, is an insider’s account of the tumultuous post-9/11 period, recounting the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the death of Osama bin Laden, the Snowden disclosures, and the rise of ISIS from the perspective of one of the highest-ranking intelligence officers in the US.
Business Insider spoke to Morell by phone on May 15. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
BI: How did everybody get every stage of the Arab Spring wrong? The intelligence community didn’t predict it, they did a poor job of predicting the effect that it would have on Al Qaeda…
I want to push back on you a little bit. We didn’t get everything wrong.
As I explain in the book, we got the strategic picture exactly right. We had been telling policymakers for a number of years that pressures were building in Arab societies. Economic pressures, social pressures, political pressures. These pressures were building for change, so we nailed that.
What we got wrong — we didn’t really get it wrong, we didn’t see it — we didn’t see it reach the boiling point. So we didn’t say in 2011, “Gosh, things are getting really bad, these pressures are really rising we’re really worried about the next 6-12 months.” We didn’t do that. We missed that. And I explained partly what we need to do going forward.
Then when the Arab Spring started, as I say in the book, we got one thing right and we got one thing wrong.
The thing we got right is, once the Arab Spring started in Tunisia we said this is going to spread. And I actually give the story of one of our papers that shows that we were saying it was going to spread. We saw immediately that this was going to have a contagion effect. So home run on that.
Then the other thing that we got wrong — this was the first thing we actually got wrong as opposed to either got right or didn’t see coming — and that was the judgement that this was going to undercut al Qaeda and their narrative that violence is necessarily for political change.
It turns out that maybe that judgement itself, the judgement of undercutting the narrative, was not the wrong judgment.
But we didn’t see the other two dynamics that were created by the Arab Spring that gave al Qaeda a big boon, which was the destruction of capability to deal with terrorists — Libya’s the best example of that where the security service, the intelligence service, and the military fell apart, so even though you had a government willing to deal with terrorists they couldn’t because they had no capability — and the other is where states still had the capability but were unwilling to use it. Morsi’s Egypt is a great example of that. So we didn’t really see those two dynamics.
So I’d push back on the premise that we had it all wrong.
Do you think there are any systematic flaws in the way that intelligence from the Middle and around al Qaeda is handled?
One of the reasons I wrote the book, and you know by reading the preface, is there are a lot of myths out there about us — that we’re James Bond and we’re all-powerful, we get everything right. And the other is that we get everything wrong, everything we touch falls apart. And then the third is that we’re completely rogue, the White House doesn’t know what we’re doing, Congress doesn’t know what we’re doing.
All three of those are complete and total myths. The reality is that we’ve got really incredible, dedicated, hard-working people trying to keep the country safe. We get many many things right, but they get some things wrong, just like any organisation does. Just like any human being does, you get some things wrong. And I want Americans to understand that.
The other thing I’d say is that none of these are easy issues. The CIA doesn’t do easy. When you’re asked what’s the status of the Iranian nuclear weapons program or when you’re asked what’s the status of a particular north Korean missile and is it capable of reaching the United States — those are really tough questions.
We don’t do easy, we do hard, and we get some things wrong. And because intelligence is so important that when we do get things wrong, it’s kind of consequential. So it just shows you it really underscores how important intelligence is.
Q: Do you think that there’s a danger in underestimating the threat from al Qaeda because of the rise of ISIS, since it seems like in some respects the group has been eclipsed and has a major competitor for jihadist hearts and minds around the world?
I’m concerned about ISIS. I’m concerned about the threat they pose to stability in the region, I’m concerned about the long-term terrorist threat they pose to us — long term — and I’m concerned about the short-term terrorist threat they pose in radicalizing young men and women.
But they still don’t rise to the level of threat that three al-Qaeda organisations pose right now. Al Qaeda in Yemen, the Khorasan Group in Syria, which is part of al-Nusra which is an al-Qaeda organisation; and still, despite the significant degradation and decimation, the al-Qaeda senior leadership in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan — those three organisations still have the ability to reach out to western Europe and the United States to conduct an attack, or to direct an attack here.
You raise an important point which is: As we’re all focused on ISIS, the media and the government and everybody is focused on ISIS because they’re so loud and noisy in terms of what they do and in terms of their social media, that we not forget about these other al-Qaeda groups.
Q: Do you think that more of the Abbottabad documents need to be released, that there needs to be a better understanding of exactly what al Qaeda wants or what its strategy is that could be explained by some of these documents that haven’t been made public yet?
I was involved in this at the very end of my tenure so there’s a lot that’s happened that I’m not 100 per cent sure about, but I think the ones that have been released have underscored al Qaeda’s continued desire to attack the United States in very particular ways.
Some of the other documents contain things that would put intelligence sources and methods at risk so they’re not going to be declassified for a long, long time. I don’t know where that balance stands, I don’t know if there’s more stuff that can come out. I’m just not able to give you a lot of precision there.
Q: Edward Snowden’s first 11 days after he arrived in Hong Kong — what’s the thinking about what he was doing?
A: I say in the book that there are some things I can’t talk about with regard to that and I’ll repeat it to you: There are things I can’t talk about with regard to that.
But I will repeat what I wrote in the book: If anybody thinks that Chinese intelligence wasn’t extremely interested in him, and that Russian intelligence wasn’t extremely interested in him in Moscow, then you don’t have a very good understanding of those two services. Let me leave it at that.
Q: There’s been controversy in the past couple of days about Jeb Bush’s answer to the question of whether he would have invaded Iraq. Is it fair to ask candidates about that? Some commentators have raised the point that we had to invade to know that we didn’t have to invade, in a way [see here]. Do you think it kind of mangles the issue to even bring this question up?
I think the way it got mangled is by asking the question: If you know now or if we know now what we know, would you have done this? That’s a really stupid question. That’s looking back with 20/20 hindsight.
A more reasonable question is: If you were in President Bush’s shoes and had all that context, what would you have done? And that’s still really an unfair question because it’s really tough to put yourself in those shoes.
In the book, I don’t take a position on whether it was a right thing or a wrong thing. I just try to paint the context in which President Bush was making this decision. As Governor Bush said, President Bush wasn’t the only one to think this was a good idea. The majority of Congress though this was a good idea.
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