What’s Wrong (and Right) with the CIA?

By Michael J. Morell

During his 33-year career at CIA, Michael Morell served as Deputy Director for over three years, a job in which he managed the Agency's day-to-day operations, represented the Agency at the White House and Congress, and maintained the Agency's relationships with intelligence services and foreign leaders around the world.  Michael also served twice as Acting Director. Michael's senior assignments at CIA also included serving for two years as the Director of Intelligence, the Agency's top analyst, and for two years as Executive Director, the CIA's top administrator—managing human resources, the budget, security, and information technology. Michael was the only person who was both with President Bush on September 11th, and with President Obama on May 1st, when Bin Laden was brought to justice.

A Candid Conversation with former Acting Director Michael Morell

Michael Morell, the former Deputy Director and twice Acting Director of CIA and the author of the New York Times best selling book “The Great War of Our Time,” agreed to sit down with the Cipher Brief to talk about the world, the business of intelligence, and his former agency.  

The Cipher Brief: You have said publicly that intelligence has never been more important than it is today.  Can you elaborate? 

Michael Morell: Yes, that is correct.  I really believe that.  Here’s why – two things. 

First, the number of national security threats and challenges facing the United States has never been greater than it is today.  Just think about what the President faces every morning – the real risk of a terrorist attack here in the United States; the continued proliferation of weapons of mass destruction around the globe; unprecedented cyber attacks on our government, on US companies, and on the public itself; historic instability in the Middle East and North Africa; the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia in ways that challenge the rules-based global order that we and our European allies established and that have served the world so well; North Korea’s saber rattling with nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and on and on. 

Second, the fact that a large proportion of these issues are first and foremost intelligence issues.  What do I mean by that?  What I mean is that policymakers cannot understand these issues, they can’t make policy regarding these issues, and they can’t carry out that policy without first-rate intelligence.  Think about this way:  there are many experts who can give you real insight on the Chinese economy, Venezuelan politics, or the future of the European Union.  But not just any expert can give you insight about the current state of the Iranian nuclear program, or the North Korean long-range missile program, or the plans, intentions, and capabilities of ISIS to strike us in the homeland.  Only intelligence officers can provide such insights.

TCB: What is the role of the CIA in dealing with this new world? 

MM: It is what it has always been.  CIA’s job description is simple.  CIA has three missions:  one, the use of human beings (spies) to steal secrets from countries and entities around the world who intend to harm US interests; two, using all the available information, including secrets and open sources, to make sense of the complex world for the President and for his/her national security team; and three, to undertake, at the direction of the President, secret activities to further US interests abroad.  What we call covert action.

I think President Bush perhaps put it best when he told me in January 2001 that the job of the CIA was to tell him what our adversaries were planning to do before they did it and to fully inform every national security and foreign policy decision that he would make as President.  At the time I saw these as great mission statements for the collection and analytic sides of CIA. I still do.

TCB: Is one of the three missions more important than the others?

MM: They are all important.  Any senior policymaker would tell you that.  But to me, one of the three, the collection of secrets, is just a little more important – because you can’t produce great analysis on the toughest problems and you can’t conduct great covert action without great intelligence collection.  My former colleagues on the analytic side of the Agency, where I started and spent most of my career, don’t like it when I say this, but it is absolutely true.

There is another way of looking at this.  When the President opens up his President’s Daily Brief everyday, he expects to read things that he can’t read in the New York Times or Washington Post.  He expects to see secrets.  The President spends some $65 billion a year on intelligence.  Yearly subscriptions to the Times and the Post are considerably cheaper.  

TCB: How is the CIA doing at performing its three missions today?

MM: I don’t know.  I’m not at the Agency anymore.  But when I was there, and if I had been asked to grade our work, I would have given us a “B minus.”  There were some things we did exceptionally well, and there were some things where there was significant room for improvement.  The overall “B” means that there were more of the former than the latter.  The “minus“ means that we had significant work to get to an “A.”

TCB: How do you get better?

MM: Obviously, there are many things you can do to get better.  I worked on many of those over the years – hiring the best talent, giving it world-class training, providing it the best technology, etc, etc.  Director Brennan is aggressively working this today – a modernization program for the Agency.    

Having said all that, I think the key to getting from the B minus to an A plus (which the American public should expect and demand) is accountability.  If there is one thing that I have learned in the private sector since my retirement is that the Agency leadership should adopt a laser-like focus on accountability.

I believe – I have always believed – that there is room for a more rigorous approach to accountability at the Agency.  Actually, this is true for the government in general.  Let me give you an example.  When I was Acting Director the second time – in later 2012 – I asked the operations directorate for a list of the key places on the planet where we needed a human spy but did not have one.  Once I had that list in hand, I told the then head of the operations directorate that getting spies in those places was his number one job over the next 12 months.  I added that his entire annual bonus rested on how well he performed that task.  That kind of accountability focuses the mind.  I should have done more of that.

TCB: You mentioned that Director Brennan is aggressively trying to improve the performance of the organization.  What is your take on CIA’s reorganization — or modernization as the Agency likes to call it?

MM: There are numerous pieces to what John is trying to do – greater integration of capabilities, better management of talent, ensuring that the Agency takes full advantage of the rapid advances in technology, etc – which is why John calls it modernization.  All of these are things former directors worked on as well.  Every one of them.  But John is trying to put structure around them so that they last, so they become part of the fabric of the organization.    

TCB: What about the reorganization?  Hasn’t that caused real angst?

MM: Yes, it has.  That is normal.  Change is difficult; the angst will pass.  I fully support what John is doing.  I believe that the most effective unit in the history of CIA was the Counterterrorism Center post 9/11.  And while there are many reasons why it was successful, one of the most important was that we brought together, in one place, all the Agency’s capabilities to focus on the one mission of protecting the United States from a terrorist attack.  I think the reorganization carries the opportunity to significantly increase the performance in all of our other mission centers as well.

I do think there is a risk, though, that has to be managed.  Power, not surprisingly, has shifted from the old directorates to the new mission centers.  But, it is possible, even likely, that too much power will shift. I think it is very important that the directorates maintain considerable influence in the organization.  I think that this is absolutely necessary to maintain high standards for both analysis and operations across all the new mission centers.

Finally, let me just say that I applaud John’s bravery in taking all this on.  Most leaders of government agencies take the approach of just trying to leave a place a little better than they found it.  It seems to me that John wants to use his tenure to make a big leap forward.

TCB: What are the big issues that the next President will have to tackle?

MM: Every new administration takes the first few months to review the policies of the previous administration and to make adjustments, small or large.  I think three issues need to be at the top of that agenda – what do we do about the Middle East, where three dynamics have come together to create the terrible situation we see playing out on the ground; what do we do about China, where the scenarios for the future of the bilateral relationship range between cooperation and confrontation; and what do we do about Russia, where our interests are just fundamentally at odds.  The IC, and the Agency in particular, will pay a huge role in these discussions – putting critical facts and analysis on the table that will help shape the policy discussion.

TCB: What do you mean “three dynamics in the Middle East?”

MM: What I mean is that the problems we see everyday on the news – ISIS, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – are really symptoms, consequences of three big trends.  Those three trends are: one, the rise of, or more accurately the operationalization of, Islamic extremism; two, the failure of governance in many states in the Middle East to provide better lives for its citizens, to provide hope to parents that their kids will have a better life than they had; and three, the struggle between Iran and the Sunni Gulf states for influence in the region.  We are never going to solve the problems that show up on the news every night without getting our arms around these big trends.

TCB: What is the one piece of advice you would give a new President? 

MM: Since I am not at CIA anymore, I will give an answer that goes way beyond the intelligence business.  I think I would tell the new President, based on my third of a century watching the world, that former Secretary of State George Schultz was exactly right when he said that foreign policy is pretty simple — if you do three things:  one, say what you mean (a clear message is extremely important both our allies and adversaries), two, do what you say (American credibility is a critically important asset that is hard to gain but easy to lose), and three, carry a big stick (a stick that you hope you never have to use but that you need to be willing to use). 

On the latter point, I would tell the new President that the phrase “big stick” typically means the US military but that it is vital that he/she think about it more broadly – it certainly means a robust military but it also means both an intelligence and a diplomatic capability that is second to none. 

TCB: Have you endorsed anyone for President?    

MM: (Laughs).  No, and I won’t.  I’ve been a non-partisan, professional intelligence officer my entire life, and I’m not about to change.  I’m not affiliated with any party, I have always voted for whom I thought would do the best job, and I have kept that decision to myself.  I will continue to do that.  Most important, I never want politics to influence — or even be perceived to influence — what I say publicly about the critical national security issues facing the country. 

TCB: You have been retired from CIA for two-and-a-half years now?  What are you doing with your time?

MM: I’m learning.  I’m learning new things everyday.  I’m doing some writing – so far, a book and a dozen or so op-eds, I’m doing some teaching, I’m doing some consulting, and I’m involved in some pretty interesting business ventures.  Oh, I am a member of the fourth estate, like you.  I am an on-air commentator on national security for CBS News and I have done a number of interviews with Charlie Rose.  I see talking to the public as a natural extension of what I did for my entire life – I used to help presidents understand the world; now I help the public understand it.

TCB: How do you think the media does covering national security?

MM: I think they do okay.  Two things makes it much more difficult than say covering U.S. politics – one is that budget cuts have forced news organizations to cut down on the number of staff overseas, where much of the action is, and two, a good chunk of what our government knows about the world and is doing about a particular problem is classified.  But, I think most news organizations make a good faith effort to tell the right story and to get it right.  That effort is exactly what I have seen at CBS.

At the same time, I must say that I have seen some journalists get things terribly wrong – either because they themselves bring a bias to a story or because they are only talking with people who have a bias.  I see this more frequently than I think I should.  Just last week, I saw a glaring example.

TCB: What was that?

MM: The New Yorker magazine produced an on-line documentary about the pre-9/11 period that was a very bad piece of journalism.  What was presented was not accurate.  And there were many pieces of the true story that were missing in action, just not presented at all. 

What was wrong?  The argument of the piece, presented by two former FBI officers interviewed in the documentary, was that CIA intentionally withheld information from the FBI prior to 9/11 that, if shared, would have prevented 9/11.  Wow.  That is some charge.  It is just not true.       

The charge relates to CIA’s failure, prior to 9/11, to watch list two of the 9/11 hijackers before they traveled to the US.  The Agency had identified them as having links to al-Qa’ida.  Absolutely a mistake – one that the CIA took responsibility for in the aftermath of 9/11 and one that was discussed extensively by the 9/11 Commission.  But, intentionally withholding information?  Not true.  The evidence is clear that CIA officers believed they had shared this information with the Bureau.  And, would have prevented 9/11?  Not at all clear.   Had the two terrorists been denied access to the US, it is likely they would have been simply replaced by others – as occurred in one other case.

What was missing from the story?  The documentary did not bother to mention the mistakes the FBI made pre-9/11 – a number of FBI officers knew everything CIA did about the two terrorists but did nothing with that information; once the Bureau focused on the fact that the two were in the United States, they did not aggressively pursue them; the FBI failed to share, both fully within the Bureau and with the CIA, the now famous memo from the FBI’s Phoenix Field Office that outlined the unusual interest of Arab men in flight schools and speculated that bin Ladin could be preparing to use them for an attack on the United States, and the failure of the Bureau to fully exploit the belongings of Zacarias Massaoui, — the so-called 20th hijacker – who was arrested prior to 9/11 on an immigration charge and whose luggage contained information tying him to terrorism.  All of this was extensively documented in the report on 9/11 by the FBI’s own internal watchdog.    

The public deserves better than the shoddy reporting they got from the New Yorker.         

TCB: What keeps you up at night?

MM: “What keeps you up at night?  What really worries you?” are two questions that I have always been asked when speaking to any group.  When I was the Acting Director and Deputy Director of CIA, I felt I needed to keep the answer focused on national security and so I said “A terrorist with a nuclear weapon.”

Now that I am no longer in government, I give a different answer, and it is even more concerning to me than a terrorist with a nuclear weapon.  And believe me, a terrorist with a nuclear weapon is deeply concerning to me.  But the answer I now give, after explaining the evolution in my response to the question, is “The failure of our elected officials to make decisions that push our economy forward.”

Why do I say that?  Because my experience watching the world for a third of a century – coupled with my understanding of the broader sweep of history – makes crystal clear that the health of a nation’s economy is the single most important determinant in its ability to protect itself, the single most important determinant in its ability to project power, the single most important determinant in its national security.

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