World Affairs Council Hosts Discussion With Former CIA Deputy Director

Hannah Abrams, for GPA -- Michael Morell has certainly seen it all. During his near 35 years with the CIA, he has witnessed the rise of Al Qaeda to the capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden, the Benghazi attacks and much more. As deputy director and two-time acting director of the CIA, Morell was central to the efforts put forth by the agency over the past few decades. This included misleading the American public in to believing that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction, which he defines as the “most significant failure of all time by the CIA.”

During an event with the World Affairs Council at the Philadelphia Marriott (1201 Market St.) on May 13, the 56-year-old Morell discussed his book The Great War of Our Time: An Insider’s Account of the CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism.

There are many misconceptions about the CIA, such as the notion that they always catch the bad guys or that they’re a rogue agency, explained Morell as he discussed the basis of the book. In actuality, Morell says, the CIA simply cannot solve everything, but is dedicated to doing the best job possible. Its duties include collecting secrets and spying, analysis and covert action.

In the introduction, Morell writes “CIA gets many things right and a few things wrong. And in my experience CIA officers always did what they thought was best for the country, and they undertook operations only with the approval, authorization, and direction of our nation’s elected leaders.”

During the discussion Morell touched upon a wide array of topics, ranging from the current threat ISIS poses to the United States to Edward Snowden’s effect on national security. While discussing the latter, Morell spoke bluntly about the man he labels a “traitor.” Snowden’s theft of federal documents, Morell said, was the “biggest theft… in history” and has irreversibly damaged the nation’s security. This led the former CIA director to the topic of ISIS. He argued that Snowden’s revelation of security details has given ISIS an advantage, because they have learned to communicate in ways that are less easily traceable by federal agents. Overall, he says, Snowden was absolutely a contributing factor to ISIS’s rise.

Contrary to popular belief, Morell says, the NSA is not reading everybody’s emails or listening in on personal calls. The media has put the idea in people’s heads that the NSA can hear and see everything you do, but that is absolutely not true. In fact, the media gets information about “secret stuff” wrong all the time. Although, Morell adds, “if you knew what I know [about cyber security and the threat it poses to us], you wouldn’t plug your toaster in.”

Morell is one of the most knowledgeable men in the United States government when it comes to Al Qaeda. He has been following the cell since its birth and subsequent terror spree. Morell recounts the harrowing details of September 11, 2001 and the capture of Bin Laden, but he elaborated a bit during this discussion.

When asked by World Affairs Council president Craig Snyder about terrorism and the notion that terrorists seem to be born faster than they are captured or killed, Morell answered sternly and passionately. He said that we must keep the pressure on terrorists to make life as difficult as possible for them. As soon as you take the pressure off, he says, they retaliate and grow stronger.

He feels that while there used to be increasing pressure put on terrorists, now there’s relatively little. In fact, Morell says, the United States has lost all credibility in regards to effectively taking down terrorist organizations before they grow too strong. This is not to say he disagrees with how President Obama is handling his presidency. Morell says that today our country faces more national security issues than in any other time in history, including the Cold War. President Obama has to wake up to a million problems regarding terrorism, nuclear weapons and more.

Between the Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, Morell believes that Bush was too quick to make decisions while Obama is too slow. President Obama likes to ask a number of questions to advisors and to hear what everybody has to say in order for him to fully understand an issue. Bush, on the other hand, acted largely on behalf of his “strong” intuition and “great” gut sense. Morell added that Bush is much brighter than the media gives him credit for. No single approach is perfect, says Morell.

Morell ended the discussion on the topic of terrorism. He noted that Indonesia is one of the leading countries when it comes to tolerating everybody and everything and in turn it produces a very low number of terrorists. As the captivated crowd began exchanging whispers following this remark, Morell added, “I’ve come to find that terrorism, at the end of the day, is a symptom, not the problem.”  

Image courtesy of WAF.