Free Speech, But: The Public Writings of Former Intelligence Officials

| Michael Morell
Michael J. Morell
Former Acting Director, CIA

In recent years, it’s been increasingly common for former CIA operations officers to write books and Op-Eds.   In an Op-Ed for Fox Business online last week, Bryan Dean Wright called out fundamental management failures at CIA.  And this week, another former ops officer, Doug Laux, published a book, Left of Boom, on his experience working for CIA in war zones in which he criticized President Barack Obama for not implementing an alleged CIA operation plan to support Syrian rebels. Former Deputy Director Michael Morell, who has written a book on his Agency experiences, shared with The Cipher Brief his views on public positions taken by former operations officers.

TCB: Do you approve of former operations officers writing books and op-eds?

Michael Morell:  How can I not?  I believe deeply in the Constitution in general and the First Amendment’s right to free speech in particular.  And, it certainly would be unfair for someone like me, who has written a book about my time at the Agency and who frequently writes op-eds about national security topics, to argue that other former Agency officers should not do so. 

TCB:  But don’t operations officers come from a culture of silence, a culture that says even though you can write for the public, you should not?

MM: You hear that a lot. But, I don’t think it is right. The list of former directors who have written a book is long – Mike Hayden, George Tenet, Robert Gates, William Colby, and Richard Helms.  Look at the last two names on the list–operations officers.  Helms and Colby wrote books about their careers.  What does that say about a culture of silence?  I think it says that the description of that aspect of the culture is overstated.

TCB:  Do you believe that former officers writing books serve a useful purpose?

MM: Absolutely. These books are important to historians as they often provide first-hand perspective on critical issues, decisions made, etc.  And they are important because they give the public a view into how their government works.  

The one caveat that I would put on my support for former officers writing for the public is that their writings must be cleared for publication.  The CIA must have the opportunity to say “This is classified, the publication of it would damage the national security of the U.S, and it needs to be removed.”  All employees, when they are hired, agree to submit any manuscript for review that bears on their time at CIA.

TCB:  How was your experience getting your book cleared?

MM:  It was a tough process.  Anyone who thinks I was treated with kid gloves because I was a former Acting Director and Deputy Director would be wrong.  The process to clear the book actually took longer than it took me to write it.

I did learn from the process that there is an inherent bias that leads the Agency to over classify.  That bias, I think, results from the fact that making the mistake of approving the publication of a secret is much worse for CIA than the mistake of keeping something secret that really is not.

So, in my own case, the Agency asked me to make many changes, from deleting words, phrases, and sentences to entire topics of discussion.  One of two things usually happened when I went through these requested changes with the Agency; either they convinced me that something was classified or, more frequently, I convinced them that something was not classified. 

TCB:  I would like to come back to Bryan’s op-ed.  Did you read it and what did you think?

MM:  I never met Bryan nor did I know of him (the Agency is a big place).  But I did read it, and I had two thoughts.  One is that people have the right to their opinions but not to their own facts.  And I really think that Bryan got many of his facts wrong.  For example, despite what he says he was told by someone in the Agency’s Recruitment Center, it is simply not true that the CIA deliberately passes over “A” and “B” students and hires only “C” students, because they believe that “A” and “B” students will end up leaving the Agency.  Not true at all.  Indeed, I believe the evidence is quite persuasive that CIA hires our nation’s best and brightest.  If a “C” student ever got hired at the Agency, it would be a minor miracle.

And, it is simply not true that the best and brightest flee the Agency after they are hired.  The attrition rate, at least during my time as Acting Director and Deputy Director, was extraordinarily low, and it was even lower for the most talented folks. 

The other disagreement I had was with Bryan’s description of CIA as a place populated by “yes” men and women. That is not at all consistent with my experience.  As I was rising in the ranks, I would routinely – in a respectful way – tell my managers when I thought they were wrong.  And, as a leader of the Agency, I welcomed – indeed I encouraged – my subordinates to do the same with me.    And they did. I’m not saying that Bryan did not experience what he says he experienced.  I’m only saying that that was not my experience – over 33 years at every level of the Agency.

TCB:  In Doug Laux’ new book, he says that the Agency had a plan that was presented to the President that would have removed Assad from power and would have prevented the rise of ISIS.  Your reaction?

MM:  Well, you won’t be surprised to hear me say that I will not confirm or deny that there was any such plan.  But, I will say that there were many factors responsible for the rise of ISIS to include, of course, the civil war in Syria.  And resolving just one of those factors would not have stopped ISIS from becoming the significant threat that it is today.  Achieving that outcome would have required resolving many of the other factors behind ISIS’ rise as well.

It is also important to note that many observers seem to think it is easy to know what history would have turned out to be if a different set of policies had been pursued.  Thinking through alternate histories, however, is not easy.  It’s hard, and what appears to be the obvious answer may not be the right answer.  Would ISIS be weaker today if Assad had been driven from power in early 2013, as many assume?  Perhaps.  But, it is equally possible that ISIS would be even stronger today, because the absence of Assad might have meant an even bigger power vacuum in Syria.  You just don’t know.

Another example of the difficulty of thinking through an alternate history is the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.  It is widely assumed that, had the U.S. not done so in 2003, we would today be much better off in the Middle East.  Maybe.  But I could also outline a scenario in which we would be much worse off.  Be careful of simplistic analysis. 

TCB:  Any other thoughts about these two most recent pieces by former ops officers?

MM:  Yes, just one more.  And it has absolutely nothing to do with them being ops officers.  Both authors had only limited time at the Agency.  Greater experience gives one a breadth of perspective that you simply can’t have with only a few years on the job.  When I was first made a manager at CIA, I thought I knew the other analysts on my team’s strengths and weaknesses.  I could not have been more wrong.  It was only when I was their day-to-day manager that I saw their actual skills and lack of skills.  So be careful with folks with narrow experience drawing broad conclusions.  

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

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