Magazine | July 6, 2015, Issue

Trained Analytic Incompetence

The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight against Terrorism from al Qa’ida to ISIS, by Michael Morell (Twelve, 384 pp., $28)

In this self-righteous book, Mr. Morell, a former director of the CIA, employs his advanced de­gree in economics to display convincingly why an economist can never reach a conclusion.

Morell’s narrative darts back and forth among four themes: his personal advancement up the ranks, defense of the CIA as an institution, defense of his role in the Benghazi imbroglio, and the great war of our time.

First, his personal journey: It suggests that the surest way to the top is to be, as Morell was, a professional aide, more grandly labeled an “executive assistant.” The author is comfortable in this role, offering sound advice about managing the overflow of data to the top echelons and sprinkling in a soupçon of encomiums about present-day national-security leaders. His essayistic tone marks him as a man of discretion and good will.

Second, he launches a robust de­fense of the CIA, skewering both Edward Snowden, for his treason, and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), for her denunciation of waterboarding ten years after she had offered no objection when she was briefed about the technique. Morell is fiercely loyal to his organization, a fine trait in any bureaucrat. There are scathing condemnations of detractors, as well as flattery of Presidents Bush and Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.

Third, he is obsessed with justifying his role in the 2012 Benghazi tragedy. He ends up demonstrating why he and other intelligence analysts deserve to be distrusted, especially by the operational side of the CIA and by operators in general. His description of the CIA decision-making process turns common sense on its head.

On September 12, 2012, the Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that the attack the previous day on the Ameri­can consulate in Benghazi was planned and executed by “‘the Brigades of the Captive Omar Abdul Rahman.’ . . . It was established by Abdul Baset Azuz, a violent radical sent by al-Qaeda. . . . The intent was to kill as many Americans as possible.”

Morell, then the CIA’s deputy director for analysis, strongly disagreed. He was the central actor behind the Obama administration’s assertion that the attack was a spontaneous mob escalation. In the book, he invokes the full weight of the CIA decision-making process to justify that assertion.

He writes that, after the attack, the CIA station chief in Libya did send in two reports that, like the DIA, pointed to a deliberate terrorist attack. The station chief insisted that the attack was “not an escalation of protests.” But Morell concluded that “neither of the chief’s two explanations in the e-mail was compelling”: “It was inconsistent with what the analysts thought.” He therefore rejected what the senior person on the ground believed, based on the second opinions of analysts 4,000 miles away. Morell writes that he personally did not second-guess and overrule the station chief: The “analysts” did. And how did the analysts decide that the station chief was in error? They looked at a video from an unmanned aerial vehicle.

“When you assess the information from the video,” Morell writes, “there are few signs of a well-thought-out plan. . . . They [the attackers] did not appear to be looking for Americans to harm.”

Deducing from a video the mental intent of shadowy figures is more mystic than analytic. I’ve been in three wars. I would have been dead decades ago had I based decisions to fire or to get under cover on this kind of guesswork after the shooting had begun.

As for the two Americans killed by mortar shells on the roof of the CIA annex, that, too, Morell dismisses as a random, unplanned attack. “Why did the attackers use only five mortar rounds?” Morell writes. “The logical answer to me is clear — they had only five mortars. If this had been an assault with days, weeks, or months of planning, the terrorists would have been much better armed.”

I commanded a mortar platoon. The odds are 1,000 to 1 against Morell’s “logical answer” of five mortars, each firing a single shell. Most likely, it was the work of one mortar accurately laid in at night, a feat that requires meticulous mechanics and the careful measuring of distances during daylight.

Morell and his analysts exhibit no experience or understanding of combat. In his ethereal world, operators are mere mortals, and real decisions are made above them, by a digital swarm called “analysts.”

“Our operations officers collect in­telligence and our analysts produce the assessments,” he writes. “Analysts have access to all the available information; our officers in the field do not.” But our nation’s military doctrine is the opposite: It stresses that assessments during combat should rest on those closest to the action. Senior staffs far from the battlefield should be in support, not in contradiction. Admittedly, this decentralized doctrine is occasionally violated by generals. But they would not defend their interference, as does Morell, by insisting that centrali­zation is the proper norm. To deny facts on the ground in favor of theory at headquarters manifests trained analytic incompetence.

Fourth, Morell addresses what he calls “the great war of our time.” He writes that ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) “is effectively al-Qaeda,” threatening Middle East stability, re­cruiting “vulnerable young men” on a global basis, and determined to attack America and to acquire weapons of mass de­struction. In February 2013, Morell briefed President Obama on the mortal threat posed by ISIS. Yet, in a magazine interview in January 2014, Obama dismissed ISIS as a “JV team . . . en­gaged in various local power struggles” that “doesn’t lead us to think . . . an extremist Islamic ideology is a direct threat to us or something we have to wade into.”

And how does Morell explain the president’s rejection of “the great war”? He doesn’t. Instead, he lavishes praise. “I admired the president,” he writes. “He was brilliant and deeply attentive in any substantive briefing.” Morell was so enthralled, he writes, that he once whispered to the White House chief of staff, “So that’s why he is the president of the United States.” One hundred pages later, he offers this analysis of the commander-in-chief: “To me, this signaled that Obama was willing to listen to the views of others, and to create an environment where his subordinates felt they were welcome to speak — incredibly important traits, I believe, in any decision-maker.”

This is a weird book, more a harmonica tweet than a trumpet call to arms. Morell reserves his ringing declaration to support for a decision-making process: “At CIA, directors and deputy directors . . . do not determine the analytic line of the Agency. The analysts do.”

This is astonishing: Morell presents himself — and all other CIA directors — as puppets controlled by an amorphous, anointed body of experts in cyberspace. How can we repose trust in an institution when its director elides — nay, argues against — personal responsibility?

Read this book if you want to know why you should be concerned about the CIA’s analytical products. Successive sentences contradict one another, and none leads to a conclusion. Our Islamist enemies in “the great war” pose “a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East . . . with intentions to attack us.” But while discounting those Islamists as a “JV team,” Mr. Obama deserves praise as commander-in-chief. Why? Because he listens to others and was extensively briefed by Mr. Morell on the looming threat. This is a baffling book without a consistent narrative or a compelling logic.

– Mr. West served as a combat Marine and as an assistant secretary of defense. He has written ten books on combat, including six about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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