The following book review and interview with Mike Morell is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link on the right sidebar.
Mike Morell served thirty-three years at the CIA culminating in becoming the acting director. His book, The Great War Of Our Time, discusses his critical role in the most important counterterrorism events of the past two decades. He not only discusses the successes, but is very up front about recognizing the mistakes made as well. The book covers a wide range of issues that include Benghazi, ISIS, his surprising view of President G. W. Bush, the Iraq War, the Enhanced Interrogation Program, the Drone Program, and Iran. Blackfive.net interviewed him about some of these issues and will highlight some of the book’s discussions.
The book begins with a one-sentence dedication, “To the men and women involved in CIA’s fight against terrorism-the finest public servants you will never know.” He also has in the last chapter this same theme of acknowledging the talented and passionate public servants who are part of the front-line to keep Americans safe. Morell reminds the readers that these men and women receive little public acclaim and money while working long dedicated hours. He told Blackfive.net, “We must realize that the terrorists will have victories also. The culture in the United Kingdom is very different than ours. Because of their history with Irish terrorism they understand it is impossible to stop every attack. You might have stopped nine, but you can’t stop the tenth. They are more accepting and less finger-pointing.”
Throughout the book he shows how the CIA had a high regard for those in the American military. Great success was achieved by the end of the Bush Administration, forcing Al Qaeda Iraq on the ropes. That progress continued until the US troop withdrawal. Because of the military and intelligence vacuum as well as Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s aggressive authoritarian ways Al Qaeda Iraq morphed into ISIS. With its supply of arms and money, as well as significant battlefield experiences they were successful in seizing large amounts of territory in western Iraq. He directly noted, “I think it’s less about the invasion than the decisions by Ambassador Paul Bremer. The biggest mistake by far in my view is not getting rid of Hussein but the destruction of the Iraqi security service, intelligence service, and military. The second part of the story is that when the US military leaves Iraq at the end of 2011 Al Qaeda was at its weakest point. As soon as we leave they start to rebound because the military pressure was taken off. The problem was that we didn’t want the US military to be somewhere without a status of forces agreement.”
The book includes a very insightful statement: to gain actionable information there is the need for intelligence collectors. The former Counterterrorism Center director, Jose Rodriguez Jr. who wrote the book Hard Measures believes that “dead men don’t talk” and criticizes the policy of not capturing terrorists. Morell explained that times have changed because those plotting against us early on during the War on Terror were “settled in areas of Pakistan so you could capture them. As soon as they went to the tribal areas capture was almost impossible. They are in parts of the world that would put American Special Forces lives at risk if we tried to capture them.”
Unfortunately, Iraq during the time of Hussein, as with North Korea and Iran today, are all “denied areas” where there is minimal or no US presence. Morell noted about Iran, “In international relations there is no trust, only verify. Currently we don’t really know what the deal is with Iran since the Obama Administration says one thing and they say something else. I think it is important to make sure the President understands the nuclear issue is not the only one we have with Iran. They desire to be the hegemonic power in the Middle East, to reestablish the Old Persian Empire. They still practice terrorism as a tool of statecraft, support international terrorist groups, namely Hezbollah, and insurgency groups trying to overthrow Sunni governments. It is Iranian state policy for Israel to disappear from this planet, which the Supreme Leader has made very clear on many occasions. Even if we take away the nuclear program there are a whole bunch of other issues. We should tread very carefully with Iran.”
Regarding Benghazi he told Blackfive.net the most important questions to him are:
“Why didn’t the State Department facility have better security; why were all the requests for better security rejected; and more importantly why didn’t the people in Washington see the need for greater security given all the strategic warnings provided by the CIA given that the situation was getting worse and worse. My people initiated a review of our place there and as a result we upgraded the security at least twice.”
He also writes intimate portraits of President G. W. Bush and former CIA Director Michael Hayden among others. He became close to President Bush as his intelligence briefer. He relayed how he was told to be prepared each day because the President will fire “questions at you at a rapid pace and he expects you to be able to answer most of them. He will test you to see how much you know, and he will test you to see if you are willing to say you don’t know…” Regarding CIA Director Hayden he became his number three in 2006. He wrote, “Hayden is one of the smartest individuals with whom I have ever worked.”
He directly commented, “Hayden is amazing. He can make the complicated understandable to the average person. He gives his honest opinion and never puts his finger in the air to see which way the political wind is blowing. He takes a military approach concerning defending his people.”
Morell admires President G. W. Bush and has been impressed from the first day they worked together. “He has strong common sense and a good gut instinct. It is easy to give him another perspective.”
Morell in The Great War Of Our Time provides a thoughtful insight into the world of intelligence. He explains the different terrorist threats as well as how the CIA handled and assessed them. In addition he also shows that a CIA official many times must sacrifice their personal life for their professional duties.