National Security & Defense

What One of the CIA’s Top Men Thinks about Benghazi, Snowden, ISIS, and More

Morell testifies on Capitol Hill, April 2014 (Win McNamee/Getty)

The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism — ​from al Qa’ida to ISIS

by Michael Morell

(Twelve, 384 pages, $28 list; $19 at

The men and women of the CIA work quietly — it’s generally not a great day for a spy when he finds his name in the news. So former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell must have been none too happy when he became the focal point of a hyper-political story – which remains in the public consciousness more than two years later — about changes made to the Obama administration’s talking points following the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

Mr. Morell’s career at the highest levels of the CIA reaches back much further than that, however: Over the last two decades of his 33 years at the CIA, the agency has been involved in some of the most consequential decisions made by the American government, including going to war in Iraq based on the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, our policy toward Egypt at the beginning of the Arab Spring, finding and killing Osama Bin Laden, and, tangentially, the debate over government collection of Americans’ communications data. Today, the CIA plays an important role in — perhaps even dominates — U.S. foreign policy in the ongoing War on Terror.

Morell has written a riveting and important memoir of the CIA’s participation in these events, which offers an admirable amount of self-criticism (alongside some cheerleading), as well as a rare glimpse into the daily life and mindset of someone at the top of the spy game.

As with every author writing about history he was involved with, the reader must consider the writer’s perspective and loyalties. While Morell is clearly a strong champion of the CIA and of intelligence services more broadly, The Great War of Our Time comes across as an honest assessment of his years of service, controversies and all. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Morell twice over the past week. What follows is a combination of the two interviews (questions asked during the second — on my radio show — are marked with an asterisk after my name), with some of my thoughts and analysis interspersed among the Q&A, in italics.

Ross Kaminsky*: Before we get into the book, I want to ask you to react to some breaking news: U.S. forces launched a raid in Syria . . . and killed an ISIS leader named Abu Sayyaf, who the administration says ran ISIS’s oil-and-gas operations and was important in their financial and military operations. What’s your reaction to that story and how does CIA play in that kind of work?

Michael Morell: This is very good news. This is an individual who was very close to the senior leadership of ISIS, including [ISIS chief Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi. This sends a message to them that they’re not safe anywhere . . . that we have the capability to come and get them. So I think this is very significant.

I think we’re going to learn an awful lot from his wife. His wife was involved in many of the operations that he was. It’s a little unfortunate that he died so we can’t question him, but we’ll question her. The role of the CIA is basically to find these guys, to collect the intelligence that allows us to pinpoint where on the planet they are . . . so the Special Forces can go in with some level of confidence that the individual is going to be there when they get there. This was a flawless operation executed brilliantly by the United States military, and I think we should all be proud of them.

Kaminsky: You say U.S. diplomacy must encourage states to act against terrorists within their borders. How do U.S. negotiations with Iran, which some consider dangerous appeasement, play into Sunni Arab countries’ willingness to do what we want?

Morell: So I’d change the formulation around a little bit: When I look at Sunni Arab Gulf states, I see them much more concerned about Iran than they are about ISIS and al-Qaeda. They believe they can deal with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the short to medium term. They are deeply concerned about Iran over the longer term. They are very nervous about a nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran — less about the nuclear deal and more about the overall empowerment of Iran that certainly the Iranians would perceive, and perhaps others would perceive, if Iran and the U.S. come to a deal. They’re concerned that the U.S. one day may wake up and say, “Iran is a more natural partner for us in the Middle East than the Sunni Arab states are.” So they watch much more closely what we do with Iran than almost anything else. They’re looking for the United States to reassure them on all of those questions.

“When I look at Sunni Arab Gulf states, I see them much more concerned about Iran than they are about ISIS and al-Qaeda.”

Kaminsky: You say that U.S. is reactive rather than proactive, part of the “national failure” that allowed 9/11. Do you think that’s still true, and if so how does that manifest itself?

MORELL: Yes, absolutely, and it’s part of our nature and we may never change. It’s just who we are as a people.

I’m not sure there are a lot of countries in the world that are actually proactive. People tend to be reactive, not to take action until they absolutely have to. I tell the story in the book about the Gore Commission, on airline safety and a whole bunch of recommendations it had on airline safety, none of which were implemented because the airlines opposed them, because they didn’t think passengers wouldn’t put up with it. After the attack on 9/11 all of those things happened; all of a sudden people put up with it.

So I think it’s just who we are as a people and we accept it, but again this is where leadership comes in, which is one of the concerns I have. One of the reasons I wrote the book is the further we get from 9/11, even with ISIS, the more we forget about what it was like that day. I see people in airline security lines who are complaining about having to take their shoes off, having to take their laptops out, and that scares me. That’s where leadership comes in, to stand up and say “We still face a threat. We still need to do the following things in order to protect ourselves. And by the way we are going to get hit again.” So that when it happens, we can be more British-like. You can’t win every battle in a war. There are going to be successful attacks against us and we have to accept that, and keep fighting the war.

KAMINSKY: What is “analytic creep” and why was it so hard to detect or recognize while we were assessing Saddam Hussein and WMDs?

MORELL: That’s a really good question. You’re the only person to ask me that and I thought more people would, because it’s not obvious what it is. In one set of analysis that you did, maybe two years ago, you have an assumption and you make very clear that it’s an assumption, that you don’t know it, that you’re just assuming it or speculating about it. Over time, in pieces that you write moving forward, that assumption becomes a fact and is presented as a fact rather than an assumption.

#related#KAMINSKY: So it’s assuming the thing that you’re actually trying to decide the truth of. But why was it so hard to recognize that that was happening (during the analysis of whether Saddam Hussein had WMDs)?

MORELL: One of the things that happened with Iraq WMDs is we really went to school on ourselves on the analytic side of the agency and said, “Where did we go wrong here? How do we fix ourselves? How do we get better?” One of the things we saw when we looked at this analytic creep was that people weren’t making their assumptions clear. People weren’t saying “This is an assumption. We don’t know this.” So it was hidden; you didn’t see the assumption. So as you changed over time and that assumption became a fact, nobody could see it.

So today we require analysts to be very, very, very clear about what they know, how they know it, what they think, why they think it, what’s an assumption, what’s a fact, how confident are they in their judgment, why do they have that level of confidence. We’re much more demanding in how explicit we want analysts to be.

KAMINSKY: I have to keep you slightly off-balance, so who is your favorite presidential dog?

MORELL: The former president of the United States, President Bush, would be very unhappy with me if I answered anything but Barney, so I’m going with Barney.

KAMINSKY: What’s your gut instinct as to whether drone attacks “actually create more terrorists,” understanding that a “yes” answer isn’t the same as saying there shouldn’t be drone attacks?

MORELL: Absolutely they do! I don’t think we have any sense for how many more get created for every one you take off the battlefield. But absolutely they do — absolutely it radicalizes other people. No doubt about that.

But what’s the choice? We’ve got terrorists in the world who we know are plotting attacks against America, who are plotting to kill Americans, who we know have the capability to do that. We absolutely have to do something about it. And the drone program of the United States government, started by President Bush and continued by President Obama, has probably been one of our most effective tools.

One of the things you have to do is look at the alternatives. What are the alternatives? There are bombs from B-2s. Well, talk about collateral damage. Cruise missiles, same thing, a lot more collateral damage. Sending in U.S. ground forces in an Abbottabad-style raid to put your hands on these guys, well that’s putting those Special Forces at extreme risk. So both presidents chose the drone because it doesn’t put U.S. forces at risk and it minimizes collateral damage. This is the most precise weapon we have in our arsenal . . . It doesn’t make collateral damage zero, but it minimizes it.

KAMINSKY: You say few people expected the Arab Spring to benefit al-Qaeda, but I read a fair number of pundits warning about just that. On the same page you say that CIA missed the impact of social media on political change in that part of the world, even though probably every analyst’s teenager could have predicted it. Do these facts demonstrate an insularity in the CIA from potentially helpful and somewhat obvious and widely available information? I mean this in an ongoing sense, not just backward-looking about the Arab Spring.

MORELL: I think it’s a good question and I think we tried to do this, but — and this is particularly as it relates to the analytic side of the agency — because we as a nation have chosen to put our nation’s premier analytic service in the same organization with the nation’s human-intelligence service, the analysts are somewhat constrained regarding whom they can talk to and how they can talk to them. I know analytic services in other countries that are separate from their human spy agency. They can pick up the phone and call reporters, call other countries, call people working for other countries, and they don’t have that stigma of being part of the humint service. Now there are great advantages — and I would never want to split them — to having the analysts and the operators together. But there’s always been a culture of the analysts being somewhat insular because they’re part of that humint service. And I think it takes real leadership at CIA to force the analysts out of that culture, to get them out more, to see what other people are doing with regard to analysis, to talk to other people about their views about different issues. That is really important, and we always work on that, but we never do enough.

KAMINSKY: You say that President Obama sided completely with Egyptian protesters and abandoned long-time ally Hosni Mubarak. Was the CIA asked to give the president some analysis on how likely it was that radical extremists like Mohamed Morsi would come to power once Mubarak left?

MORELL: I can’t say 100 percent because I don’t remember, but I’m pretty certain we did all sorts of analysis about what’s next, what are elections going to bring, and what kind of governments are these going to be.

When Morsi took over, we were reporting all of the actions that he was taking and they really fell into one of two buckets. One bucket was actions to become more and more authoritarian, to move away from the direction that the Egyptian people really wanted the country to go. He was becoming more like Mubarak every day. And then second, a bucket of horrible policy choices with regard to the economy, with regard to the military — a whole bunch of policy choices that were taking Egypt into the toilet. Which is why quite frankly, kind of going against U.S. policy at the time, I thought it was a good thing that [current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi stepped up and removed Morsi, because I thought Morsi was taking the country in a very dangerous direction.

KAMINSKY: Do you think President Obama agreed with that assessment?

MORELL: I have no idea. You have to ask him.

KAMINSKY: Let’s talk about Benghazi. I’ve interviewed some of the CIA contractors who were in the firefight in Benghazi. They are convinced that there was enemy recon of the State Department compound before the attack. They also believe that the attack was at least somewhat more organized than you seem to believe. You say none of the three separate attacks on the Benghazi compounds showed “significant planning.” What does “significant” mean? And does that sort of parsing of words worry you?

MORELL: I wasn’t trying to parse words. I should start by saying, I think this is important. What I describe in the first Benghazi chapter about what happened that night, these aren’t just Michael Morell’s views. These are the views of the U.S. intelligence community, and not just CIA . . . I don’t think there were weeks or even days of preplanning. I think there were hours of planning, and I think the planning got better and better as the night went on because the attacks got more sophisticated as the night went on. I’ve been thinking about these mortars for a long time; I talk about them in the book. If there was significant pre-planning here, then why weren’t there mortars at the TMF [the State Dept’s Temporary Mission Facility, where four Americans were killed], why weren’t there mortars at the first attack at the CIA annex, why weren’t there more than five mortars? They drove our officers and the military guys and the State Department guys who were with them off the roof. So they had plenty of time to throw as many mortars as they wanted. But they only fired five mortars. Why? Because I think that’s all they had. That’s all they could find in the time they had to put this thing together. . . .

But I think this issue of how much pre-planning was there is kind of irrelevant. I think what’s much more relevant is the fact that Islamic extremists, some of them with association with al-Qaeda, some of them not, some of them probably just guys they picked up along the way — particularly for the first attack — some guys who just want to copy what happened in Cairo.

“I think what’s important about Benghazi is that it’s the first manifestation of the Arab Spring-induced spread of al-Qaeda and their ideology.”

I think what’s much more significant is that Libya became a breeding ground for this type of extremism to grow. I think what’s important about Benghazi is that it’s the first manifestation of the Arab Spring–induced spread of al-Qaeda and their ideology. That’s one issue that’s really important, and I think the other important issue here is the protection of Americans overseas.

The world is a much more dangerous place. Al-Qaeda has spread geographically in a very significant way, largely as a result of the Arab Spring, but also for some other reasons. And our diplomats and our intelligence officers and our military personnel are at greater risk than they were before. How are we going to protect them going forward? And, to be fair, why weren’t they better protected that night?

I’ll tell you a story here, and I’m going to say something that’s not in the book: One of the things that frustrated me after the fact was, all of a sudden, Congress gets really interested in the security at Benghazi. Well, where were they beforehand? I used to have long conversations with the Senate intelligence committee and the House intelligence committee about security at various CIA facilities around the world. They would express concern and I would say here’s what we’re doing about it. We used to have long talks about one particular place and whether we should be there and what we were doing about protecting our officers. Nobody in Congress ever raised concern about Benghazi. So where was the congressional oversight prior to Benghazi?

In his book, Morell discusses a few other controversial aspects of Benghazi, too: He says that neither CIA staff there nor anywhere else in Libya were involved in the transfer of weapons from Libya to the Syrian rebels, as some have suggested they may have been. He also says that the temporary “stand down” order given to contractors planning to go defend the State Department compound was shorter and less meaningful than many (including warriors on the ground that night) believe.

One of the less convincing sections of Mr. Morell’s book was about Benghazi, in fact: his explanation of why the CIA initially said there was a protest at the State Department facility just as there had been at the American embassy in Cairo. On the other hand, Morell’s explanation of his and the CIA’s role in the Benghazi talking points offers a believable vindication of himself and senior officials of the agency, while also explaining that it was a mistake for CIA communications offices to have any involvement in such a politicized process. Morell goes through each of the main charges leveled against him by former Bush-administration attorney general Michael Mukasey and leaves little doubt that Mukasey’s assertions were based on “factual errors.” He also explains how Representative Trey Gowdy and Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham each also made errors when discussing his role in the drafting or changing of the talking points. Again, I find Morell’s account credible and exculpatory despite picking up the book with pre-existing notions about this messy story.

Kaminsky*: What is your response to Seymour Hersh’s recent claim that many important reported details of the Bin Laden raid are untrue, including his claim that we learned of Bin Laden’s location from a Pakistani intelligence officer who wanted the reward money, that Pakistani intelligence had been hiding Bin Laden, and that two Pakistani generals whom you mention in your book knew about the raid in advance?

Morell: [Hersh says that his source is] a former senior intelligence service official in the United States. Not to put too fine a point on it, Ross, it’s all rubbish. I was in the room when our counterterrorism guys came to Director Panetta and me and said, we think we’ve found one of Bin Laden’s couriers and we’ve followed him to where he lives and it is this incredibly unique compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, incredible security features, the behavior of the courier and his brother are very suspicious. So that’s how we found the compound. I was in the room for every meeting at the CIA as this issue progressed. I was in every meeting in the Situation Room in the White House when we were discussing this with the president and his national-security team. I was there when the president said we are not going to tell the Pakistanis about this. Seymour Hersh says we did, and that they knew all about it, and that they let us fly into their airspace.

It’s nonsense. . . . I was there when Director Panetta and I were monitoring the flight of those helicopters in Pakistan. We were looking for a Pakistani response because we were worried about it. I was there when the Pakistanis learned and were extremely angry and upset and embarrassed. The president of the United States sent me to Pakistan to smooth over and reestablish relations with the intelligence services there and the military. I don’t know who [Hersh’s] source is, but his source was not in the same rooms that I was in during this year-long process of finding [Bin Laden] and bringing him to justice.

KAMINSKY*: I’d like to ask you a personal question. What did it feel like to be in that room, monitoring the Bin Laden raid, and what went through your mind — or your stomach or your heart — when the helicopter crashed?

MORELL: Two great questions. . . . The first is, during many of the discussions in the Sit Room, Secretary Gates kept reminding us that he was sitting there when the tragedy happened in the desert of Iran when we were trying to rescue the hostages in Tehran. So he kept reminding us that bad things happen on military missions. So my first thought when the helicopter went down was that Bob Gates was right, and my stomach turned.

When we later learned . . . that they thought they got him, it wasn’t joy. It was more “Oh my gosh, this turned out to be right,” because before we walked into that room, Leon Panetta said to me, “So what do you think? Is he there or not?” I said, “I won’t be surprised if he’s there, and I won’t be surprised if he’s not.”

“When we learned that the Seals thought they got Bin Laden, the reaction wasn’t joy. It was more ‘Oh my gosh, this turned out to be right.’”

KAMINSKY: Let’s move on from those issues. You say that “all data NSA collected was approved by the executive branch and Congress” and that NSA did nothing illegal. Do you stand by that assertion given that Congress seemed surprised and the president seemed surprised by the program, and that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that NSA’s phone metadata collection was not authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act?

MORELL: We have to split things up here a little bit. Put 215 off to the side for a second. In terms of what NSA was collecting — there’s the process inside of the office of the Director of National Intelligence that sets requirements. There wasn’t anything that NSA was disseminating to the intelligence community and the policy makers that NSA was not asked by that requirements process to collect and disseminate. By the way, that document is blessed by the DNI, and then by the higher level — approved by the deputies and the principals — and at an even higher and more general level by the president of the United States. So that’s what I mean when I say that the work they were doing was approved by both the executive branch and the legislative branch and, yes, I stand by that.

Now, back to 215. So the FISA court, in opinion after opinion after opinion, said that 215 was legal. So now it has only been determined to be illegal in the last week given the ruling of the appellate court. But at the time the NSA was conducting the program, it was determined to be legal. More important than that is that the panel I served on, the Snowden panel, we didn’t find any areas of abuse by the NSA of the 215 program. We found them doing only what they told the executive branch and Congress that they were doing. The appellate court did not rule on the constitutionality of this thing. They didn’t say it was constitutional; they didn’t say it was unconstitutional. But they hinted that it was constitutional because what they said was, “We don’t think the Patriot Act gives you, the executive branch, the right to do this program. If you want this program — and this is the hint about the constitutionality — Congress just needs to be more explicit with you giving you that authority. The other thing the court didn’t do: It didn’t stop the program. It’s allowing the program to continue until this thing gets resolved between Congress and the White House. So I didn’t see this as a big slap-down of the White House — the Bush and the Obama administrations — that this was some hugely unconstitutional illegal program. I think they’re just saying that the Patriot Act doesn’t give you the right to do this. If you want that right, ask Congress to give it to you. Then, by implication, the court is saying, we’ll be okay with it.

Given Morell’s background, it may not be surprising that he did not point out the fact that FISA courts are secret and that the court granted all but eleven requests — out of 33,900 made — by federal agencies between 1979 and 2012. Given what appears to be a “rubber stamp” of a court (although some have offered explanations for the 99.97 percent approval rate), it seems hard to believe that FISC’s lack of objections to 215 requests mean much at all.

I also dispute Mr. Morell’s conclusion that the Second Circuit opinion hinted at their positive predisposition toward the constitutionality of the way Section 215 is currently being implemented if only Congress would pass a law actually allowing that implementation. While it is true that the court suggested that Congress should play a primary role “in deciding, explicitly and after full debate, whether such programs are appropriate and necessary,” they also noted that “the constitutional issues [of the case] are . . . daunting.”

KAMINSKY: Do you really think the public’s reaction to Section 215 collection would have been different if media reported it without suggesting that the NSA was actually listening to calls — although I don’t really think the media did a lot of that?

MORELL: I’ll say two things: I do think the media helped frame the public’s reaction. Here’s the most interesting thing to do: Go back and look at the polls that were done in the weeks and months after the disclosures and look at what people thought 215 was. People thought that it was much more intrusive into their personal lives than it really was. So whether or not the media was responsible for getting the public there — I think they did a little of that and I talk about that in the book — even if the public got there on their own, then the media was at fault for not clarifying what the program was and helping people understand it better. So I blame the media either way.

And the second factor was the length of time away from 9/11. So if Snowden had disclosed this program in June 2002, the public reaction would have been completely different than the public reaction in June 2013. The reaction in 2002 would have been, “Darn right, this is exactly what I want my government to do.” In June 2013 it was, “Geez, I don’t know if I trust the government with this stuff.”

KAMINSKY: It’s an interesting question because it’s probably not as obvious to me as to you that the June 2002 answer is the right one . . . 

MORELL: Absolutely correct, because there you’re over-hyped on the threat, right? But by June 2013, I think we’re under-hyped on the threat a little. So, it’s somewhere in between probably. Good point.

KAMINSKY: One of the few things that bothered me about your book was . . . why, as far as I can tell, do you not devote even one full sentence to the question of privacy rights and the legitimate concerns of many Americans about government data collection?

MORELL: I think I do, actually. I talk about when I was on the review group, how I came to appreciate that, although there was no abuse in the 215 program to date, that it created the potential for abuse. And [I came to realize] how many times in American history the government has abused its power. There’s a reason why Americans have a distrust for their government. There’s a healthiness in American distrust of their government. There’s a healthiness in having journalists investigate what the government is doing to make sure it’s not abusing its power.

The recommendation that we all came to on this panel, which was to change the way this program was done, was a very important nod to “Hey, let’s not take the risk of giving the government this much power. Let’s put this program in a place and do this program in a way where we think it’s still going to work from a national-security perspective but it’s going to work even better from a privacy and civil-liberties perspective.” So I do think I talk about that.

For a civil libertarian, a statement about potential for government abuse is not the same as explicit recognition of privacy rights, but given Morell’s background, he may not see the distinction as being as important as I do.

KAMINSKY*: In the book, it sounds as if you would actually have more data collection rather than less, in the interests of national security. Am I reading that right?

MORELL: I don’t want to overstate this, but I think there’s a possibility that if this program had existed prior to 9/11 we would have seen some of the communications between the 9/11 hijackers in the United States and we would have been able to disrupt the attack. Where I come down in terms of adding to it is that, interestingly, not all phone calls made in the United States are currently in the program. A big chunk of them are, but not all of them. I think all of them need to be. And e-mails aren’t, so if you had al-Qaeda operatives in the United States communicating with each other over e-mail we would never see that. So I think that metadata from e-mails need to be in this program too.

Now that’s the security side. I also feel pretty strongly about the privacy and civil-liberties side. . . . I was part of President Obama’s review group on this whole issue. We unanimously recommended to him that the government no longer hold this data, that private companies hold the data, and that the government no longer be able to query the data based on only one broad court order — they have to get a court order every time they want to do this. NSA told us that they could live with that, that they could still do their job and protect with the country with this recommendation. We tried to walk a fine line between security and privacy and civil liberties.

KAMINSKY: What is an appropriate punishment for Edward Snowden? (In the book, Morell calls him a traitor.)

MORELL: I write in the book that I think he’s not being truthful, or maybe he doesn’t even know himself, what his true motivation is. And I don’t think it was to protect privacy and civil liberties; I think it was all about Edward Snowden. I think this is a guy who craves attention, who craves being seen as the smartest guy in the room.

With regard to his punishment, I’m willing to live with whatever a jury decides. If a jury decides that what he did was the right thing, then I’m willing to see him walk. If a jury decides he should go to jail for the rest of his life, then that’s what should happen. I just want him to be judged by the same people who he said should judge the 215 program.

KAMINSKY: Thanks for your time and thanks for your tremendous service to your country. I’m truly grateful.

— Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed financial-markets trader and investor and a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He hosts The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver’s NewsRadio 850 KOA and fills in for radio talk-show hosts across the country. You can reach Ross by e-mail at

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