Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell is debuting season two of his popular podcast ‘Intelligence Matters’ in partnership with CBS News this week. The Cipher Brief was proud to be a partner for the launch of the podcast last season and Cipher Brief CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly took some time to get personal with Morell to talk about what he’s hoping to do with the podcast and what’s in store for season two.
Why did you first feel compelled to launch the Intelligence Matters?
It used to be true that for the most part, certainly not in every situation, but it used to be true that politics stopped at the water’s edge and you know, probably starting about ten or fifteen years ago, that started to erode. It sort of reached its climax with Benghazi and has continued down the wrong road to this very day, and so I really wanted there to be a place where you could have in-depth conversations with national security experts, both former senior folks and current senior folks, to talk about these very complex issues, free of politics. There are certainly different views on why we are where we are and there are certainly different views on what we should do about it, but I just wanted to have a place where people aren’t scoring political points and I thought that was just really, really important at this moment in time. It’s fully consistent with why Mike Hayden wrote his really, really good book.
How hard is that though, to do in a highly-charged political environment?
I found it pretty easy to do in season one. If the interviewer doesn’t take people there, I found that people don’t go there, even when I’ve had people on who live in that political environment like Adam Schiff and Tom Cotton live in a political environment every day. They didn’t go there. So I think it’s actually pretty easy if you don’t pull them in with the questions and if you keep the questions focused on the substance.
In season one, you sometimes interviewed people you’ve worked closely with in the past, including some of the Cipher Brief experts. Are those harder conversations or easier conversations to have when you’re opening up that relationship to an audience?
That’s a really good question. I’d say in general, its’ easier because you’re already at a comfort level and you slip very quickly into a conversation, rather than a question and answer. With some of the folks I used to work with who grew up on the operational side of the Agency, the fact that they led a covert, clandestine life for so long, you know, sometimes they’re a little bit more reluctant to find a comfort zone with what they can talk about and what they can’t. But that’s not because they have a relationship with me. That’s because they live in this particular environment that they’ve lived in for so long.
What was your favorite interview from season one?
So without a doubt, without a doubt, my favorite interview was with Toni Hiley, the curator of the CIA Museum, the current curator, not former. She’s been in that job for a couple of decades. In that interview, we walked through two of the CIA Museums and the CIA historical art collection and she picked out her favorite pieces and we talked about those. You know, the one that we got a lot of attention at The Cipher Brief on, was the letter that a young OSS Officer wrote to his then 3-year-old son when this young OSS Officer was one of the first Americans to get into Hitler’s bunker in the Bavarian mountains. He grabbed a piece of Hitler’s stationary and wrote this very moving letter to his son about this historical moment, and this young OSS Officer turned out to be Richard Helms, who years later became the Director of CIA. It was a remarkable story and it got a lot of attention.
So are you going for the stories that put a human face on an Agency that hasn’t historically had one?
Is this a personal mission that you’re on with the podcast?
It’s not a personal mission. During my career as an analyst, my job – first and foremost – was to keep the President aware of what was happening in the world and what it meant for him. And you know, not only as a junior analyst, and mid-level analyst ,but even as a senior officer, when I was briefing them directly or I was spending time with them in the Sitroom directly, you know, that was my job. And I see my job now in the media. Whether my time writing for The Cipher Brief, or my time on CBS, or even with the podcast, I’m doing exactly the same thing for the American people. And it’s really interesting if you think about it, the parallels and similarities between the Intelligence world and the world of journalism. The objective is exactly the same. The objective is to find the truth. Both professions have sources. Both professions protect their sources. Both sources try to get the story right and if they get it wrong, there are consequences, both for sometimes the world we live in and sometimes the organization you live in and sometimes for yourself, if you get it wrong. The only difference is who you do it for. The Intelligence community does it for the President and journalists do it for the American people. So I see this kind of tight bond between my old life and my new life.
So what kinds of conversations can we expect to hear in season two?
You’re going to continue to see a mix of former senior officials who will talk about the decisions they made and why they made them, and how they think about them today, years later, as well as what they think of the issues that the Trump Administration is facing today. You’ll get a mix of former and currently serving officials and the issues they’re facing today on their job, and how they’re thinking about them, and how they’re trying to understand them, and what their policy options are, so really there will be a mix and then on top of that, you know, you talked earlier when we were talking about Tony, about finding a human face, right? Most people don’t automatically appreciate that all of these folks in the intelligence world and the national security world also have lives and to the extent that we can bring that to the forefront, I think, makes them more accessible and brings a level of trust to what they have to say. We’ll try very hard to cover the range of issues. The challenge there, is there are just so many. As Mike Hayden frequently says, there have been more dangerous times in American history, but there has not been a time when there have been so many national security challenges facing the country, so it’s going to be hard to get to them all. But whether it’s North Korea and Iran, Russia, China, Syria, Iraq, International terrorism, narcotics trafficking, proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, cyber, I can go on and on. We’ll try to get to them all. It will be a challenge, but that will mean that we’ll be around for a long time.
Thank you, Michael.
Season 2 of Michael Morell’s podcast Intelligence Matters is available on iTunes.