Mr.Michael Morell recently retired as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. With 33 years of experience in the intelligence community, he is one of the country’s most prominent national security professionals. His recent book, The Great War of Our Time, was published in early May and captures his experiences combating terrorism from the highest levels of government. The CTC is proud to announce Mr. Morell will be joining the Center as a Senior Fellow this summer.
CTC: Congratulations on publishing your book, and thank you for your lifetime of service to the nation, particularly in the fight against terrorism. Few have as much intelligence experience with terrorism as you do, so what have you learned over the past three decades about these organizations that was not apparent to you in the early days?
Morell: I think the most important thing one needs to know about these organizations is that they are both fragile and resilient at the same time. I think we’ve shown over and over again that when we go after them aggressively from an intelligence/paramilitary/military perspective, we do great damage to them and we do so in quick fashion.
When you take the pressure off, however, these groups bounce back very quickly. That’s because they are vulnerable yet agile and resistant organizations. When you keep the pressure on, you keep them on their back foot. They’re so worried about their own security that they don’t have time to plan, train, and plot. But when you take that pressure off, they have time to do all of these things. They rebuild and reconstitute.
Sometimes after you’ve put a lot of pressure on a particular group and have succeeded in degrading it, there is the tendency to take that pressure off and to ease up. It is a natural thing. But the lesson for counterterrorism is you have to keep the pressure on.
CTC: In your book you warn that our country has a tendency to be too reactive than being proactive. The United States had to endure a tragedy like 9/11 before taking the terrorism threat seriously and devoting the resources necessary to combat it. Have we as a country learned our lesson since 9/11 in this area or do you think we have slid back into our old habits?
Morell: I think we are who we are as a people and I think we’ve slipped back. A great example for me would be the Snowden disclosures of the [Section] 215 program [of the USA PATRIOT Act]. If those disclosures had been made in 2002, with the attacks of 9/11 very fresh in people’s memory, the public reaction would have been, “I want my government to be doing that. That is exactly the right thing to do.”
But more than ten years after 9/11, the public’s memory has faded, and now the public has a different reaction. People in general are just much less trusting of their government. We have lost that sense after 9/11 that we are vulnerable, that terrorism is a serious threat, and that we need to do what needs to be done.
When I was standing in security lines at airports soon after 9/11, nobody was complaining. Now when I stand in security lines, people are complaining. People have forgotten, even with the ISIS [also known as the Islamic State] threat in the news. People have forgotten what it was like.
In the book I talk about the sign as you enter the Counterterrorism Center at the CIA that says, “Today is September 12, 2001.” That’s the mindset of my guys at the Agency and that’s the mindset of the Agency when it comes to terrorism. When I used to get in my car and drive away from the Agency, the further I got, the more it felt like September 10, 2001 than September 12, 2001.
CTC: Along those lines, if you were to create a new counterterrorism authority that we do not currently have, or enhance one that already exists, which would it be and why?
Morell: I’m really worried about [Section] 215. We just had an appellate court say they didn’t think Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act actually allows the government to do what it has been doing. It didn’t say it was unconstitutional; it didn’t say it was constitutional. 
The court basically said that Congress didn’t give the administration that authority. It said very clearly, if you want to have that authority, Congress has to be more explicit about it. That was the basic message in that court ruling.
I believe 215 is a very important program. I think it helps fill one of the gaps that existed prior to 9/11. If 215 had been in place before 9/11, there’s a chance, I’m not saying for sure, but there’s a chance we would have seen the communications among the 19 hijackers and might have been able to stop the attack.
I’m concerned that with the opposition among some members of Congress, and with this court ruling, it [Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act] may expire and that would be a very, very dangerous thing I think. I really hope that Congress does the right thing and finds a way to keep the program going, even if it would have to change a little to satisfy concerns about privacy and civil liberties.
CTC: Several elements of your book touch on the dangers of politicizing intelligence, an unnerving feature of national security in the past two decades. Given your 33 years in the intelligence community, serving with administrations and legislatures controlled by both sides of the aisle, how would you evaluate this problem today? Is the problem better or worse than when you first came into the Agency?
Morell: I think that during my career, intelligence has often become the “meat in the sandwich.” In political fights and in policy fights—and they are two different things—the CIA often found itself stuck in the middle. What I mean by stuck in the middle is that both sides would use what we were saying to their advantage. Both sides would take parts of what we were saying to support their agenda, and they would often take it out of context.
On Benghazi, for example, I personally found myself stuck in the middle. I think what changed over the last 30 years, is that more national security issues have been politicized. What’s changed is that more of these issues have become part of the “bare-knuckle” politics that is Washington. I think the challenge for intelligence officers is to always, always, always stay above that, to never become part of that. We have to been seen as objective, totally objective, if people are going to listen to what we say. If we are seen as being in any way political, people are going to read our stuff with deep skepticism and that would be very dangerous for our country.
CTC: In your book you devote significant space to this topic, using several examples, the most notable of which include the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 and the Benghazi attack in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. How did you go about educating your intelligence analysts to deal with this problem of politicizing intelligence?
Morell: Part of it is training and part of it is basic, day-to-day leadership. I can remember several times in my career managing analysts whose analysis was being used in a policy fight. I would sit down with them. I would talk with them and explain why it was happening. And I would tell them that their job was to ignore it. Don’t pay attention to it. Pay attention to the analysis you do every day and call it like you see it. In the Iraq/al-Qa`ida story I tell in the book, I talk about the Vice President’s office pushing us, in my view, inappropriately. That’s why it was very important when the President of the United States [President George W. Bush] came and said to us, ignore that, continue to call it like you see it. It was a really important message on his part. That messaging really strengthens our objectivity. It is really important for leaders to have those conversations with analysts about what’s happening and the political dynamics going on around them.
CTC: Prior to September 11, there was a lack of consensus in our government regarding the threat posed by al-Qa`ida. There seems to be such a strong focus today on the Islamic State that a similar underestimation would seem unlikely. Are we thinking correctly about the threat posed by the Islamic State?
Morell: I think we are properly focused on ISIS and thinking about the threat in the right way.
I’m more concerned that as we focus on ISIS we may lose focus on other Islamic extremist groups out there, the most important of which are AQAP [al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen, AQSL [al-Qa`ida Senior Leadership] in Pakistan, and quite frankly the Khorasan group that is part of Jabhat al-Nusra [in Syria]. All three of those groups have the capability to conduct attacks both in Western Europe and the United States. It is very important that we remain focused on those other threats, which, from a homeland perspective today, are still a greater threat than ISIS.
CTC: In the book you provide detailed analyses of the threats posed by some of these groups you just mentioned. I think some of our readers may be interested in hearing why AQAP poses “an even greater threat to the U.S. homeland than does ISIS, at least for now.” Can you discuss why you think this is the case?
Morell: If you look back at the last three attempted attacks on the homeland that were directed from overseas—and I’m specifically talking about directed attacks—not lone wolf attacks, not Boston, not Fort Hood, not what just happened in Texas. I’m talking about the last three directed attacks. They were all AQAP-directed attacks. They all used very sophisticated explosives technology, all produced by this one particular bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri.
Al-Asiri’s cooking up new ideas all the time. He’s training other bomb makers. Who knows how many people he has trained now? Even if you took him off the battlefield, I’m not sure it would significantly affect the group because he’s trained so many people. AQAP was the group that sent [Umar Farouk] Abdulmutallab successfully, and they have come close in other ways. As I say in the book, this group could bring down an airliner tomorrow and I would not be surprised, but I believe most Americans would be surprised.
CTC: One individual that you raise concern about in the book is an up-and-coming al-Qa`ida leader Farouq al-Qahtani. Many view him as being highly competent and a very charismatic leader, a possible successor to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Can you provide a little background on him for readers who may be unfamiliar with this individual?
Morell: Sure. Al-Qahtani was sent by the AQ senior leadership to go from Pakistan to the Nuristan/Kunar area [in north-eastern Afghanistan] to create a potential fall-back position should AQ senior leaders have to leave the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in north-western Pakistan]. He was given some operatives to take with him and he’s built quite a following among the Taliban and other extremists in that area. The terrain he operates in is very challenging—even if you had a strong central Afghan government, they couldn’t do much to go after bad guys in those mountains. He’s very difficult to get to.
As you said, this is a guy with charisma, with leadership capability. This guy is incredibly operationally savvy. I can’t go into any details about what he does that gives me that view of him, but he has great operational tradecraft, great security tradecraft, and so I worry about him. The U.S. military has been aggressively going after him for some time without a lot of success because he is just so talented.
CTC: In your opinion, how does the “great war of our time” end?
Morell: Great question. As you read in the book, I think it is going to be a long war. I think my kids’ generation and my grandkids’ generation will still be fighting this fight, but I think it ends when it becomes a law enforcement problem solely, when it no longer is a paramilitary/military problem. I think that’s what we should be shooting for. You’re never going to eliminate it completely, but if you can make it just a law enforcement problem, I think that would be a victory.
CTC: When you examine the situation in the Middle East, what are your major concerns? What is your outlook on Iraq, Syria, and our country’s future relationship with Iran?
Morell: Let me start with a huge caveat. If you find someone who tells you they know what the Middle East will look like in five years, they are either lying or they don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t think anybody can honestly say what this region is going to look like.
What I can say is that I do have quite a bit of confidence that the Iraqis will be able to take back the territory ISIS took. I saw a great map on the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] website a couple weeks ago that showed the territory ISIS controlled at its peak in Iraq and the territory they control today, and they’ve lost approximately 25 percent of what they had, which is a pretty significant number. I think we, the Iraqis, the Shi`a militias, and the Iranians have all done a pretty good job taking back some of that territory.
At the same time that I have this confidence about Iraq, I’ve got little–to-no confidence that we’re going to be able to successfully deal with ISIS in Syria. Basically, they have safe haven in eastern Syria and there isn’t much pressure being put on them there. I think what is scary is that as we squeeze them in Iraq, they will just go back into Syria. So we have a hammer in Iraq, but we have no anvil in Syria. I haven’t seen a strategy yet that deals with the Syria problem. It’s not like I have one and it’s not like I know the answer. It is very, very difficult.
In terms of the Iranians, they pose a very significant threat to the region that goes well beyond the nuclear issue. There are a lot of things the Iranians do in terms of support for their own terrorists and support for other insurgencies in the region. I think we need a broader strategy with regard to the Iranians. It is really important to focus on the nuclear issue, but it is just as important to focus on the bigger strategic threat.
CTC: You have done several interviews for your book. What is one question that you wish people would ask about the book but have not? Or what do you think people should be focusing on in the book but have not?
Morell: There are a couple things. The first is if you read the book closely, I actually critique myself more than other people. There are a number of places where I said, “I would’ve done this differently. I would’ve done that differently.” And that is really a reflection of what I’ve tried to do in my career. I’ve always tried to self-assess. I’ve always asked myself: how did I do and how could I have done better?
Second, if you read the book closely, I critique what some other people have said and done, but in most cases I don’t attribute intentions to their behaviors, actions and speech. As an intel analyst, you learn pretty quickly that when you speculate about intentions, you’re often wrong.
So I didn’t speculate about some Republicans saying things that weren’t true about Benghazi or why the White House in my view crossed the line about what it said about Benghazi, or why Scooter Libby did what he did in regards to Iraq and al-Qa`ida. I don’t know what was in their minds.
The last thing I will say in that regard, is that a really important point is that there isn’t anybody who I worked for in government—worked with or worked for—whose heart was not in the right place, who wasn’t trying to do the right thing for the country. I never worked with anybody whose intentions were somehow misguided. Everybody had the objective of protecting the country. There were differences of opinion about how to do that, but everybody was on board with doing everything we could to protect the country.
 Editors note: For more on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, see Devlin Barrett, “FBI Use of Controversial Patriot Act Section Expands,” The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2015.
 Editors note: See Charlie Savage and Jonathan Weisman, “NSA Collection of Bulk Data Is Ruled Illegal,” New York Times, May 7, 2015.
 Editor’s note: Mr. Morell is referring to the so-called underwear bomber who failed to detonate his bomb on a Christmas Day flight over Detroit in 2009. For more, see Peter Finn, “Al-Awlaqi Directed Christmas ‘Underwear Bomber’ Plot, Justice Department Memo Says,” Washington Post, February 10, 2012.