Flawed Intelligence In The 'War Of Our Time'
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're now going to hear from someone who has been involved in every major national security threat this country has faced since 9/11, and there have been many. His name is Michael Morell. And if you don't recognize the name, he won't be offended. Morell spent more than 30 years at the CIA, most of it out of the public eye, but right in the middle of crisis after crisis. He was with George W. Bush on 9/11 as the CIA daily briefer. Years later, he served twice as the acting head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Morell has written a new book. It is called "The Great War Of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism From Al Qa'ida To ISIS." Michael Morell joins me in our studios here in Washington. Thanks so much for coming in.
MICHAEL MORELL: It's great to be here.
MARTIN: You use this book to give your take on several of the most significant national security issues of the past, really, 15 years or so. I'd like to ask you about a few of them.
MARTIN: Starting with a big one - the flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program that led to the Iraq War. You write in the book that groupthink was part of the problem; others in government have suggested as much. Can you walk us through how that happens, especially in an agency that prides itself on being independent thinkers?
MORELL: In the sense of groupthink that I talked about, it was everyone who looked at this issue came to the same conclusion - that he had chemical weapons, that he had a biological weapons production capability and that he was restarting his nuclear weapons program, which we all knew that he once had and stopped. So everybody thought it. There were no outliers. There was nobody to raise a question, right. And that's where the groupthink really comes in.
MARTIN: But you yourself even had questions in the process. Small details, sentences in reports that you thought I don't think that's right, but I'm not going to say anything.
MORELL: Right. And that was at the end of the process really. That was when we were prepping Secretary Powell to go out and really tell this story to the American people and to the world that data points we used in the argument didn't seem to be holding up under the pretty intense questioning by the secretary. But I didn't say anything because I thought there was a, you know, a larger set of data there to support it. Looking back, you know, I wish I had made a different decision.
MARTIN: You write in the book an explicit apology to Colin Powell, the secretary of state at the time, who made the case for war in front of the United Nations. Why did you feel compelled to apologize?
MORELL: Because obviously the work of the agency did not meet our high standards, did not meet the standards that the president sets for us, that the American people expect of us. Secretary Powell, in particular, put his own reputation on the line. And it was a reputation that was well-earned over decades of public service. And so I thought it particularly important that I say something to him directly.
MARTIN: Have you ever issued that apology in person, perchance or on the phone?
MORELL: I did not issue it in person. I did give the secretary an advance copy of that chapter. He read it. He called me, and he thanked me for the apology.
MARTIN: It was interesting in the book, you wrote that Secretary Powell was so apprehensive about the intelligence that he actually drafted his remarks to the UN in the CIA at headquarters. And this was a big deal. This was notable. In fact, one high-level CIA analyst recused herself from the issue because she thought that the politics had seeped too far inside the intelligence committee.
MORELL: Yeah, what she thought as - and it's absolutely true is there's a very sharp line in our business between intelligence and policy. Intelligence officers are supposed to put the facts on the table and really walk away from the policy discussion. So when a policy maker comes to the agency to draft what is in essence a policy argument, she thought that was going too far. From the secretary's perspective, he thought it very important that the agency be seen as being behind the words that he was going to speak at the UN. That was very, very important to him.
MARTIN: Did the CIA face political pressure in finding evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass description?
MORELL: No. That is a myth. All you have to do is go back to the fact that the analysts believe this about Saddam Hussein long before George Bush ever came to office. So nobody had to push us. We were already there on the question of weapons of mass distruction.
MARTIN: I want to move on to the NSA surveillance program.
MARTIN: This was not a CIA program, but you were brought into this because President Obama asked you to be part of the review program. You write in the book that Edward Snowden contributed to the rise of ISIS. What evidence do you have to show that?
MORELL: So I can't get into specifics, but I'll tell you that there was a program that he disclosed that was vital to the United States' ability to see what terrorists are doing. And they all changed their communication habits because of that disclosure - al-Qaida in Pakistan, al-Qaida in Yemen and al-Qaida in Iraq, which morphed into ISIS. So there is no doubt in my mind that that change in behavior on the part of al-Qaida in Iraq and ISIS contributed to ISIS's rise. I'm not the only one to believe that. Nonpartisan senior kind of terrorism officials in our government have testified to Congress that they share that view.
MARTIN: That is also a convenient argument because, I mean, this was the worst intelligence leak in history, as you point out. And to then blame this man, Edward Snowden, on the rise of ISIS, in some way frees the CIA and perhaps other parts of the U.S. intelligence community from predicting the rise of ISIS. Does the CIA bear some responsibility in that, in not seeing that?
MORELL: So a very fair question, a very fair question. And I don't mean to imply it was the only factor, right, behind ISIS's rise. There were many, many factors behind ISIS's rise - the U.S. leaving Iraq and not leaving a stay-behind force, former Prime Minister Maliki's misbehavior with regard to the Sunnis, his disenfranchisement of them, the Civil War in Syria, right and all of the weapons that were available led to the rise of ISIS. So a lot of things led to the rise of ISIS.
Now, with regard to the intelligence community's performance on ISIS, I can really only tell you what I know up to the point that I left government, right, which was we were talking about the growing strength of ISIS. What I don't know is whether we actually called the blitzkrieg, right, did we see the blitzkrieg across Iraq coming? I just don't know the answer to that question.
MARTIN: The book is called "The Great War Of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism - From Al-Qa-ida To ISIS." It is written by the former deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell. He joined us in our studios here in Washington. Thanks so much for talking with us.
MORELL: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.