Fmr. CIA Acting Dir. Michael Morell: "This Is the Political Equivalent of 9/11"

Michael J. Morell
Former Acting Director, CIA
Suzanne Kelly

The Washington Post report on a secret CIA assessment concluding that Russia intervened in the U.S. Presidential election with the intention of helping President-elect Donald Trump win is only part of a deeply concerning and incredibly significant risk to national security.  It would be bad enough if the Russians were able to influence a democratic election, but the reaction of President-elect Trump and his team is causing equal alarm within the intelligence community. 

The President-elect called the allegations “laughable,” alarming intelligence experts, regardless of political background.  Alarming, because the comments indicate a deep distrust between the President-elect and the nation’s premiere intelligence agency charged with providing non-partisan intelligence that the President must depend on to keep all Americans safe. 

Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell made no bones about his support of Hillary Clinton during the campaign.  But he was also President George W. Bush’s CIA Briefer on 9/11.  I spoke with him about the significance and potential effects of a deep lack of trust between the President and the CIA.

Does the President-elect’s response indicate that there is an open feud between the CIA and Donald Trump?

This is not a good sign, obviously.  In a world with so many threats and challenges facing the United States and in a city where politics and policy disputes color so many views, a President, if they’re going to be able to protect the country, they need someone to provide them with an objective, unbiased view of what’s going on in the world, and why it matters to them, and why it matters to the country.  That job falls to the Intelligence Community led by the CIA, and that’s why the relationship between a President and the Intelligence Community and the CIA is so special, and the President and the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) and the Director of the Agency need to nurture that special relationship.   And right now that special relationship is being undermined.

When you say special relationship, I think you’re talking about trust.  There has to be trust there, right?

Yes, absolutely, and I’m not talking about a President coddling the CIA.  A President needs to be demanding of the Agency.  He needs to demand its best performance; he should ask tough questions about Agency judgments.  A President does not need to agree with everything the Agency says, but a President does need to listen and to do so with an open mind.  He or she should not be publicly critical of the institution because it undermines that relationship, it undermines that trust you were talking about, it undermines the Agency’s ability to do its job.  But on the flip side, and this is part of the trust too, is a President also needs to expect and demand the Agency’s discretion.  So, no leaks about controversial judgments, no leaks about what a President says in a meeting with the Agency—that behavior is as unacceptable as a President not listening.

So this information was leaked to The Washington Post…

I’m not just suggesting that the IC or the Agency leaked that information, but if you go back to some of those original intelligence community briefings of Trump right after the convention, boy, there were a lot of stories out there about what happened in that meeting.  I don’t think they came from the Trump side, because they were negative stories.   Maybe that got this off on the wrong foot.

I do think, going back to what you said earlier, I do think it is really important for the Trump team to understand that the Intelligence Community and the Agency are not political.  There is simply not a political bone in their body.  In fact, if anything, they are politically naïve, and politicians have a tendency to look at the Intelligence Community and the Agency the way they look at everybody else, and everybody else is political, so they tend to think that of the Intelligence Community until they really understand it, and its not, its just not.

I really hope that the position that Mike Hayden has taken with regard to the President-elect, the position that I’ve taken with regard to the President-elect, hasn’t in any way colored his or his team’s views of the Agency and what its trying to do here.  When it says that it believes Russia was meddling in the election, that is not a political judgment, that is an objective, unbiased judgment, its not based on politics or policy or anything else.  It’s really important for them to understand that.

How can they understand then, when someone who has led the Agency as you have, does make a political statement and a political decision, as you did, when you came out in The New York Times and decided to support Hillary Clinton?  How should people be thinking about that as the separation between Michael Morell, private citizen speaking, which he’s now allowed to do because he’s out of government, versus the opinion of a person who spent their entire career in the Intelligence Community.  How do you make that separation?  How should people think about that?

I think that’s exactly what they have to do.  This is Michael Morell, private citizen and this is Michael Hayden, private citizen who are talking about what we think is best for the country.  It’s completely divorced from what the job of the CIA is, and it’s a pretty simple line: we don’t work there anymore, we don’t work for the government anymore.  We’re not bound by that same responsibility that anybody who works for the Agency has, which is you gotta call it like you see it, irregardless of the politics or irregardless of the policy.  Both what Mike did and what I did was calling it like we see it but from a much broader perspective than just saying what’s happening in the world.  We’re talking about our own country for once in our lives. That’s the distinction, and people shouldn’t be confused by that.

If Kellyanne Conway says Trump is going to put his own people in there, do you fear that if he does perceive the Agency as being political, that he’s going to continue that track and put people in there who will also be political? If he is in that mindset and that’s his thinking, what damage can that do to the Agency and its ability to perform its core function?

When she said that, there are two possibilities.  One is that she believes its political now in some way, and its judgments are being politicized in some way, and they’re going to fix that, they’re going to return it to what it should be, which is non-political, so that’s one possibility.  The other is that she thinks exactly what you said, which is she wants to politicize it in a different direction.  I don’t think Mike Pompeo is going to allow that to happen.  I think because he served on the Intelligence Committee, I think he understands the critically important role of having an organization that provides unbiased, objective assessments of what’s going on in the world.   I don’t think he’s going to do that.   He is going to have a responsibility to have that conversation with seniors in the White House about the role of the Agency if they try to push in that direction.

You were with President Bush on 9/11, and you understand more than most, how important that relationship is with the President.  President-elect Trump has already started getting intelligence briefings.  How important is that relationship between his briefer and him going to be, how do you see that working out, and how much time does it take before that trust is built up?

That relationship between briefer and President is really important.  There’s got to be a level of trust there.  You want the President to give you direct feedback about what he is reading and what he is being briefed on, and whether he agrees with it or not, whether he’s got a different perspective, and whether he thinks it answers the right question, or whether he thinks it missed the mark.  You want the President to be able to feel like he can say those things and it’s not going to end up in The Washington Post.  That’s part of that trust.

The President also wants the briefer, and this is important with regard to the President-elect, it’s up to the briefer to figure out how the President best absorbs information, how to best brief him, how to best present information in a way that he may find more effective.  You have to figure that out.  It’s not their job.  You’ve got to adjust to them, and that’s something that the Intelligence Community has always struggled with during transitions.   The briefer has to figure that out.

The President also has to create an environment in that room where the briefer feels 100 percent comfortable saying whatever the briefer thinks.  The President wants the briefer to be able to say, ‘Mr. President, I disagree with you on that, and we have a different perspective, let me explain it to you.’  The President has to be able to create the environment for discussion and debate so that relationship with the President is kind of a microcosm of the broader relationship between the Agency and the Presidency, and the Intelligence Community and the Presidency. They all kind of fit together like Russian Dolls.

Let’s get back to the allegations that the Washington Post reported, which is that the CIA has evidence that Russia intended to influence the outcome of the U.S. election in Trump’s favor.  One technical question, and then I want to talk about the larger significance of that if it’s true.  The technical question being, President-elect Trump is now privy to CIA briefings, so wouldn’t he be able to ask the question of where this information came from?

Sure, once he became President-elect, he gets to see everything, so my reading of The Washington Post story was that they (the CIA) have more here than just inference.  They’ve got sources and methods, and he would have access to all of that.  They would be able to say all of that.  They would be able to explain to him exactly where that came from.  They would be able to explain to him the degree of the influence that they see.

It sounds to me, when I read the Post article, that the Russian Information Operations were much broader than just stealing information from the DNC and from John Podesta and giving it to Wikileaks.   That’s my sense from reading that article.  I don’t know, I don’t have any inside information here.  I haven’t been briefed by the Agency, I don’t know what they know but that’s just my sense reading the Post story.  But he would have access to all of that and could ask any question he wants about it.  In my view, he’s just rejecting this because of the implication of what this means for the legitimacy of his election.  It’s just a natural instinct on his part to reject, because it doesn’t fit his world view.  But he would have access to all of that.

So instead of making a statement like, ‘These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,’ there could have been a much more delicate and thoughtful way for him responding to that report?

He shouldn’t be responding publicly.  The Obama Administration should not be leaking, whether that’s the White House, or the Intelligence Community or whoever, right?  The Obama Administration should not be leaking and he should not be criticizing publicly.  They’ve got to get this discussion out of the public domain.  It doesn’t belong there.  It belongs in the room between the President and the briefer, between the President and his CIA-designate, that’s where it belongs.

You know, the other thing I’d say and this is important too, I think the argument that the Agency has missed things in the past and has gotten things wrong, so why pay attention to them now on this, why trust them?  I’d say of course the Agency has gotten things wrong.  Iraq WMD, that’s the best-known example.  No organization is perfect and the Agency’s work is difficult.  As one of our great Directors Mike Hayden once said, the Agency only deals with tough questions, it does not do easy, right?  So that’s hard.  But even as it deals with those hardest problems, the Agency gets most judgments right.  One of the things that most people don’t know is that the Agency actually tracks how well its judgments stand up over time.  And the numbers look like fielding percentages in baseball, not batting averages.  They are that high, the Agency is that good, so to criticize them and say they get things wrong all the time is just not reality.

Is that because they can’t really go public with the things they get right without exposing sources and methods?

Right, or some of the things they get wrong that don’t ever end up in the public domain, you just can’t.  Now the President has access to all of that, so he could actually ask his briefer, ‘tell me how often you guys get things right?” and the next day the briefer could come back and say here’s how we do that, and here’s how often we get things right, and here’s how we try to learn from the things we get wrong.  That’s the kind of conversation that should be happening.

Tell me about the significance of these allegations if they are true, what’s the overall significance to national security if Russia was successful in doing something like this?

I think the first point is it’s really interesting, and you said this earlier, this is not a new story.  We knew back in October that Russia was meddling in the election.  In October, the Obama Administration said publicly that Russia was interfering with the election and that the knowledge and direction of that went to the highest levels of the Russian government.  This was, in my mind, the first time in American history that our government has accused another government of meddling in our election.  This is huge.  What was new in The Washington Post story, if its right—we still don’t know whether its right, and whether the rest of the IC agrees or not—but that the CIA believes the intent of the meddling was to help Mr. Trump and hurt Mrs. Clinton’s chances.   That meddling went way beyond just stealing the DNC and Podesta information and giving it to WikiLeaks, that’s what’s new.

But what’s important to me is, it’s less important that they had picked the winner and loser, which I thought all along they had done.  What’s most important is that they did indeed meddle.  I think the implications of that are just absolutely huge, and I think there are three of them:

The first is, we need to see this for what it is.  It is an attack on our very democracy.  It’s an attack on who we are as a people.   A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life.  To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11.  It is huge and the fact that it hasn’t gotten more attention from the Obama Administration, Congress, and the mainstream media, is just shocking to me.

The second is that I agree with a whole bunch of people on the Hill, Democrats and Republicans, Sen. John McCain, that we need a bi-partisan commission to look into exactly what the Russians did and what we can do here at home to make sure that no foreign government can ever do this again to us.  That’s why that commission is so important.  The commission shouldn’t look into what is an unknowable thing – which is: did they affect the outcome or not – we’ll never know that.  We’ll never know what the Russians did, whether it affected a single vote or not.  But what we can do is figure out exactly what they did and make changes here at home as to how information is handled, how we protect information, and make sure they never do this again.

The third implication is we need to respond to the Russian attack.  We need to deter the Russians and anyone else who is watching this—and you can bet your bottom dollar that the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians are all watching.  We need to deter all of those folks from even thinking about doing something like this in the future.

I think that our response needs to have two key pieces to it.  One is it’s got to be overt.  It needs to be seen.  A covert response would significantly limit the deterrence effect.  If you can’t see it, it’s not going to deter the Chinese and North Koreans and Iranians and others, so it’s got to be seen.

The second, is that it’s got to be significant from Putin’s perspective.  He has to feel some pain, he has to pay a price here or again, there will be no deterrence, and it has to be seen by the rest of the world as being significant to Mr. Putin so that it can be a deterrent.

Would it be the CIA who would lead an offensive cyber response to something like this?

This would be broad policy.  It could be broad-based sanctions, it could be delivering weapons, offensive weapons to the Ukrainians.  It just needs to be something that he does not like that makes him pay a price for what he’s done here, so that he doesn’t do it again.   In my view, there is so much criticism of the President-elect here and how he’s responded to this allegation.  In my view, the Obama Administration should have already responded to what the Russians did. We knew back in October that they were doing this.  The DNI and the Director of DHS couldn’t have said it more clearly.  We should have responded to this.  Now I’m deeply concerned that a response to what the Russians did here is going to fall through the cracks of the transition, and a lack of a response will only embolden Putin.

The Author is Michael J. Morell

Michael Morell, the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is one of our nation's leading national security professionals, with extensive experience in intelligence and foreign policy.  He has been at the center of our nation's fight against terrorism, its work to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and its efforts to respond to trends that are altering the international landscape—including the Arab Spring, the rise of China,... Read More

The Coauthor is Suzanne Kelly

Suzanne Kelly is CEO & Publisher of The Cipher Brief and most recently served as CNN's Intelligence Correspondent before spending two years in the private sector. She also worked as an Executive Producer for CNN and as a news anchor at CNN International based in Berlin and Atlanta. In Berlin, she anchored a morning news program that was broadcast live in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and from Atlanta, she anchored a number of world news programs. She covered the NATO campaign in... Read More

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