Michael Morell served 33 years with the Central Intelligence Agency, the last three-and-a-half as Deputy Director, a position from which he ran the day-to-day operations of the Agency. Morell also served as the Director for Intelligence, the Agency’s chief analyst; as the Executive Director, the CIA’s top administrator; and as Acting Director twice. He is a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of an oral interview conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It has been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.
CTC: On September 11, 2001, you were President Bush’s CIA briefer and would later serve as the deputy and acting director of the CIA. Can you talk us through how that day, 9/11, was for you? The sense of purpose it created in you and your colleagues, and the ways you were able to contribute to the counterterrorism mission in the months and years that followed? And when you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are some of the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? What are your most memorable highs and lows?
Morell: I was with President Bush on 9/11. I was his daily intelligence briefer for one year, from January 4th, 2001, to January 4th, 2002. Briefed him six days a week, every morning, no matter where he was in the world—Oval Office, Camp David, his ranch in Texas, traveling domestically or internationally. So that put me on Air Force One on September 10th when it went wheels up for what was a political trip to Florida. I briefed him that morning [of September 11, 2001] from 8:00 to 8:30. Contrary to some speculation that you’ll see from time to time on the internet, there was nothing in that briefing at all with regard to al-Qa`ida or an attack or to terrorism in any way. Most of the briefing that day was about the Second Intifada between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
It was during that briefing, of course—and we didn’t know it at the time—that the first transponder on one of the four flights was turned off. Obviously, we had no idea that that was happening. When the briefing was over at 8:30, we went down to the motorcade and drove to the school, [the Emma E. Booker Elementary School], where the president was going to do one of these events. And it was during that drive that the first plane hit the first tower, and it was right after we got there that the second plane hit the second tower. When the first plane hit, everybody’s assumption, including mine, was that [it] must be bad weather in New York, must be a small plane, must be an accident. But that view of the world started to unravel when we heard that the first plane was a large commercial jet. And then obviously when the second plane hit, you knew this was terrorism. And I knew instantly that this was al-Qa`ida, and this was bin Ladin.
The rest of that day for me was a mixture of the intensity of doing my job with the surreal. An example of the intensity of doing my job is [that as] we were flying from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana—where Air Force One had landed to take on food and water, and to kick a lot of people off the plane because we didn’t know how long we’d be flying around—to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, the president asked to see me, alone. So, it was the president, it was his Chief of Staff Andy Card, and it was me in his small office on Air Force One. [The] president looked me in the eye, and he said, “Michael, who did this?”
And I told him that I had not seen any intelligence that would take us to a perpetrator, but I’d be happy to give him my best assessment, and he said, “I understand the caveat. Now, move on.” It’s very much of a George Bush thing to say.
So I told him that there were two state sponsors of terrorism, Iran and Iraq, that had the capability to do this, but that in my view, neither one of them had anything to gain and both of them had everything to lose from doing something like this. And so I said I did not believe it was one of those countries. I said, “I believe when we get to the end of the trail, Mr. President, we’re going to find al-Qa`ida, and we’re going to find bin Ladin.” And I told him that I was so confident of that that I would bet my children’s future on it.
He then looked me in the eye again, and he said, “When will we know?” which is kind of a question you get from a president for which there is no answer obviously. So I fell back on what analysts are trained to do, which is to provide context. So I thought back about a handful of terrorist attacks on the United States previously and how long it took us to find out. So I told him the East African embassy bombings, it took us two to three days to figure out that it was al-Qa`ida. The bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, I told them it took us several months to link that back to al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan. And then I told him the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, it took us a full year to link that to Saudi Hezbollah and back to Tehran and the Iranians. So when you put all that context together, I told him, “Mr. President, we may know soon, and then again, it may take some time.”
Later that evening, when we were flying back to Andrews Air Force Base, the CIA sent me a piece of intelligence that had been provided to us by a West European intelligence service. And its message was quite frankly stunning, and George Tenet, then the director of Central Intelligence, wanted me to show it to the president. You couldn’t tell from the piece of intelligence what its sourcing was, so you couldn’t give it any credibility, but what it said was the attack that day was the first of two waves of attacks on the United States. So here I was, sitting with the president of the United States who had just suffered the worst attack in the history of our country, and here was his intelligence briefer telling him that this was going to happen again.
So that’s two examples of the intensity of doing my job that day. An example of the surreal: as we were landing at Andrews Air Force Base that night, the president’s military aide, the carrier of the ‘nuclear football,’ was looking outside the windows on the left side of the aircraft. He saw me looking at him—we had become friends over the previous nine months—and he waved me over to the windows, and I went over and he said, “Look out.” I looked out, and there was an F-16 on the wingtip. He told me that that was from the D.C. Air National Guard, that it was an F-16, and that there was another one on the other wing tip. That plane, that F-16 was so close that you could see the pilot, you could see the pilot’s facial features, and you could see the pilot looking at us. And then the military aide told me something that still sends shivers up my spine, which I think kind of defines the surrealism of the day: He said, “Do you know why they’re there?” And I’m not a military guy, I didn’t know, and it was a particularly difficult question because every commercial flight in the United States had been grounded. So the only planes that were in the air that day at that time were military aircraft, so there was no risk of anybody flying aircraft into us. So I said “No, I don’t know,” and he said, “Well, they’re there in case somebody shoots a surface-to-air missile at us on final approach. Their job is to put themselves between that missile and the president of the United States.”
So the day for me was that mixture of the intensity doing my job and the surreal. And for me, it was like it was yesterday. I remember every single detail. You know, people have asked me, “Did you think about the historic moment? That this was going to define the future for some considerable period of time?” and I always say, “No, I didn’t because I was working.” And I was focused on the moment. But the one thing I will say is, I saw the president transform in front of my eyes, from a president whose presidency was kind of drifting a little bit to the commander in chief, to a president who knew exactly what his mission was going forward, that it had been defined as clearly as you can define something, right? To not let this happen again.
And I think that over the next few weeks at CIA, that’s what happened to that organization too. To me, 9/11 was a national failure. It was an intelligence failure; it was a policy failure; and it was a national failure in that the airlines knew what they needed to do to better protect aircraft, and they didn’t want to do it because they didn’t want to inconvenience their passengers. So this was a national failure. But part of that was an intelligence failure. We had provided significant strategic warning going back to 1996 about this guy named bin Ladin and what he wanted to do and what he wanted to achieve and that he wanted to attack the United States and that he wanted to get his hands on weapons of mass destruction, that he wanted to drive us out of the Middle East. We knew all of this back to 1996. And we had warned about this over and over again in the Clinton administration and the Bush administration.
So there was ample strategic warning, but there was not what we call tactical warning. There was not: Here’s what they want to do on this particular day, here’s where they want to do it, and here’s how they want to do it. That’s tactical warning. That’s the kind of warning that allows you to stop an attack. So this was half an intelligence success and half an intelligence failure, but that failure part of it was a tremendous motivation for the organization not to let that happen again. And I can’t tell you how strong that feeling was at the Agency after 9/11. And then the political criticism that came and the political criticism that was aimed at CIA and FBI just reinforced that drive not to let it happen again. You know, I always found it to be a deep, deep irony that really the only two organizations—the CIA and the FBI—that were really paying attention to al-Qa`ida prior to 9/11 were the ones to take the political criticism for 9/11. It’s a really disappointing moment for me, watching our politicians do that.
But all of that combined to a drive not to let it happen again, so CIA was essentially restructured overnight, with hundreds of more people working on terrorism and working on al-Qa`ida, taking people from different parts of the Agency who had never worked on al-Qa`ida or terrorism. They’re working on, say, Indonesia one day, and the next day, they’re working on al-Qa`ida. Literally hundreds of people, billions of dollars invested in counterterrorism. So, post 9/11, counterterrorism becomes for the Agency what the Soviet Union was for the Agency during the Cold War. Virtually everything that everybody is doing in some way is touching counterterrorism.
And the post-9/11 history is a mixture of significant success: the destruction of al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan, the capture of senior al-Qa`ida leaders, the stopping of additional plots against the homeland, of which there were dozens. So post-9/11, we not only provided strategic warning, but we provided that tactical warning that I talked about earlier over and over and over and over again. Literally, you can count on three or four hands, how many homeland al-Qa`ida plots we stopped. So literally a huge success post-9/11 in both stopping attacks and degrading the organization.
Now, there were some ups and downs in degrading the organization. We did an extraordinarily good job in the immediate aftermath in Afghanistan of degrading the organization. As you know, the first place that al-Qa`ida went was to pre-arranged safe houses in Pakistan. We and the Pakistanis did a good job of degrading the organization when they were in those safe houses, made a lot of arrests. Then al-Qa`ida moved to the FATA, to the federally administered tribal areas, and it was a combination of them moving there and the difficulty of getting at them from an intelligence perspective and then the Iraq War, which drew a lot of resources away from al-Qa`ida, really allowed al-Qa`ida to rebound. And so by 2005, 2006, they’re carrying out attacks again. They carried out the London attacks, the Madrid attacks. They came very close to bringing down 10 to 15 airliners flying from Heathrow Airport to the United States in August of 2006, and so they needed to be degraded again. And the Bush administration started that, and the Obama administration finished it. So, a string of successes with really a couple of controversies—the whole enhanced interrogation technique controversy and then the controversy over drones—but in large part, very, very significant success.
The moments for me that I remember in particular: my last briefing for George Bush as president was on January 4th, 2002, as I mentioned earlier, and it was at that briefing that I had to tell him that we had learned that bin Ladin had escaped from Tora Bora. And so not only was I with him on 9/11, but I was with him when we found out that bin Ladin had escaped. And the president was not happy. It was the angriest that I had ever seen him. In fact, it was the only time that I had seen him angry. He was so angry that he ‘shot the messenger.’ He ‘shot’ me, asking me questions about “How did you let this happen? What is your plan now?” So, that’s something I won’t forget. But certainly on his part, I felt his anger was justified. That was crystal clear.
I was in London for the London attacks. I was there that day. So I’ll never forget that. I was part of the CIA leadership team for stopping the so-called liquids plot, the 10 to 15 airliners—Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom all working together to stop that attack.
I was deputy director for the bin Ladin operation. In relation to that, there were three days that I’ll never forget, the first was in August of 2010 when the chief of our counterterrorism center said to Director [Leon] Panetta and to me, “I need to see you guys alone.” And it was in that meeting that he told us that they had found who they thought was a bin Ladin courier and that they had found this extraordinary home that he lived in, described the home to us. Nobody at that meeting said that bin Ladin might be there, but given the links between this person and bin Ladin prior to 9/11 and given what this home looked like and its security features, the hair on the back of my neck stood up in this meeting. Then a month later, I remember our first meeting, our first briefing of this information for President Obama in late September 2010—basically the same information and a little bit more that we were able to gather that the director and I were told about in August. And I remember President Obama giving us two orders: One was “Leon, Michael, find out what is going on inside that compound,” number one; and number two, “Do not tell anybody. Do not tell [the] Secretary of Defense. Do not tell the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Do not tell the Director of the FBI. Do not tell the Attorney General. Do not tell the Secretary of State. Do not tell anybody. This information stays in this group.”
And it stayed that way until late December, January. And that’s how tight it was. This was the best-kept secret that I have ever been involved in in government. It was only in January  when the president wanted the military brought in so that we could talk about finish options.
And then the last thing I remember, again as if it was yesterday, was President Obama, knowing that I was with President Bush on 9/11, asked me to go to Dallas after the bin Ladin operation and brief President Bush on it. So I took with me the senior analyst from the counterterrorism center to brief the intelligence story, and I took with me the JSOC J3 [joint operations], who explained the military raid. We spent two and a half hours with the president. He was like a kid in a candy shop. He wanted to know every detail. He was particularly interested in those things in the intelligence story that happened while he was still president. In fact, he remembered then Director of the CIA Mike Hayden’s briefing him on some of those parts of the story. We stayed with him for two and a half hours; at the end of the two and a half hours, he said, “You know, Laura and I were gonna go to the movies tonight, but this is better than any movie you could possibly ever see. So we’re staying home.” And then I remember he got up and walked over to his desk, and he took out three of his commander-in-chief challenge coins, and he gave one to each of us. And when he slapped one into my hand and I looked into his eyes, I could see closure that I had not seen since 9/11.
So, that’s kind of my story here. This issue dominated the second half of my career. I was with the Agency for 33 years, and al-Qa`ida dominated the last half of it, probably almost 15 years of it. Al-Qa`ida today is significantly degraded; ISIS today is significantly degraded. There are parts of the world that I’m worried about right now. I worry about al-Shabaab in Somalia. I worry about ISIS in West Africa. But still they’re overall much more degraded than they were several years ago. But terrorist groups are funny things. Terrorist groups, with the right intelligence, are exceptionally easy to degrade, but they’re also really easy to rebuild. That’s the history; the history is sort of a sine wave. They get very dangerous, you degrade them, they weaken, you take your eye off them, and they rebound. And I don’t think that pattern is going to stop. I think we’re going to see this for quite some period of time. I think my children’s generation and my grandchildren’s generation are still going to be dealing with this issue.
CTC: Over the past 20 years, the United States has developed an impressive array of investigative expertise, new tools, methodologies like F3EAD,a operational capabilities, and partnerships, such as the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, that have been integral to the counterterrorism fight. Over the same span of time, the United States has successfully prosecuted many terror offenders and also demonstrated its ability to deploy new or enhanced capabilities and tools tactically and operationally, around the world in precise and impactful ways. How would you describe the evolution of U.S. counterterrorism over the past two decades? What stands out to you? And when you think about the future of U.S. counterterrorism over the next five to 10 years and its future evolution, what does that picture look like?
Morell: All of the government’s focus was on this issue. I talked earlier about the intelligence failure, right? The difference between strategic and tactical. There was a policy failure as well. The policy failure was in not responding to the strategic warning. The policy failure was not going after bin Ladin prior to 9/11. And the difference between post-9/11 and pre-9/11 was that post-9/11, the entire U.S. government and all of its resources and all of its relationships around the world—diplomatic, military, intelligence—everything was focused on going after al-Qa`ida and then going after ISIS. And when you have that kind of focus, you can develop amazing capabilities. And that’s exactly what we did; that’s just what you described. And we developed those techniques and those tactics that we wouldn’t have if we hadn’t had that focus and those resources. The upside is all of that prevented another homeland attack. All of that delivered in what it was supposed to deliver. The downside is that because we were so focused on al-Qa`ida—and on ISIS, we were not able to focus on our peer competitors. So for 20 years, we fought a counterterrorism war and a counterinsurgency war that flowed from the counterterrorism war, and we were focused on that, and China and Russia were focused on us. And in particular, they were focused on figuring out how we fight wars and figuring out ways of countering that.
And so the Chinese developed anti-access/area denial weapons, because the Chinese studied us and watched us and figured out that we don’t have our forces forward. When we need to fight, we take some time to put our forces in place and then we fight. And so the Chinese figured out that, what we just need to do is prevent the United States from moving forward with any speed at all and finish our job before the United States can get there. And so, the Chinese and Russians have built these incredible capabilities to fight us, and we have an awful lot of catch-up to do. So somehow in the next five years, 10 years, we have to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to figure out how to refocus on our peer competitors, particularly China, while at the same time not taking our eye off the terrorists because they will come back.
I’m 100 percent certain that al-Qa`ida is going to gain considerable strength from our withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, and that if we don’t deal with them, if we don’t collect intelligence on them, and if we don’t figure out a way to reach out and touch them and degrade them from a military perspective, we’re going to be facing a homeland threat again. So we have got to figure out how to focus on China and Russia while not forgetting how to deal with terrorism. So I think the future is going to be, how do we balance those two things? How do we develop intelligence capabilities that are at some distance from the target? And how are we going to develop military capabilities to deal with terrorists that are some distance from the target a lot further than we’re used to? I’m confident that if we stay focused, we can achieve that. I think the challenge is going to be staying focused when it appears that the terrorists for the moment are significantly weakened.
In the wake of the fall of Kabul, my assessment is that the Taliban will welcome al-Qa`ida, they will provide it safe haven, and al-Qa`ida will start to reconstitute immediately. In addition, the al-Qa`ida leaders in Iran may well be allowed by the Iranians to rejoin their colleagues in Afghanistan, and other al-Qa`ida extremists around the world will go to Afghanistan to be part of the victory celebration. The reconstruction of al-Qa`ida’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it.
CTC: At a time of ongoing, transformative technological change in fields such as synthetic biology, drones, and artificial intelligence, and as the United States emerges from a global pandemic that has renewed concern over biological threats, what are the potential threats from terror groups and non-state actors that most concern you over the next 10 years or so?
Morell: That’s a great question. With one exception really, they’ve tried to exploit the technology available to them. Going back to even prior to 9/11 and the research that al-Qa`ida was doing with chemical and biological weapons, the research they were doing with anthrax prior to 9/11, their interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, ISIS’ capabilities with regard to chemical weapons, that they were able to develop in university labs that were sitting on the geography of the caliphate, they’ve always been interested in technology. The use of drones as attack vehicles. The one thing they’ve never really shown a lot of interest in is cyber attacks. I think they’d rather see deaths than the lights go out or gasoline shortages. They’ve never shown the interest in cyber that a lot of people thought they would. Maybe they will someday. But they really haven’t to date.
My greatest worry remains weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t only al-Qa`ida that had those ambitions; it was ISIS as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that while a nation state can have nuclear weapons but really can’t use them, no doubt that a terrorist organization would use them. They don’t face the same mutually assured destruction that a nation state faces. Among the weapons of mass destruction, the one I worry most about is biological weapons. I think the technological advances in synthetic biology have made it so easy for even amateur synthetic biologists, bio engineers, chemists to develop biological weapons that are capable of killing millions of people. So, I think that we as a government and our partner governments in this large coalition that we have fighting extremism really needs to focus on collecting intelligence on the synthetic bio issue, preparation for a synthetic bio attack, that needs to be a central focus going forward.
CTC: What is the most important personal lesson you have learned over the course of your lengthy career that you think would be helpful for the many men and women in the United States and our partner countries around the world who will lead and take part in the next generation of counterterrorism efforts?
Morell: I don’t know if it’s a personal lesson, but it’s a certainly a lesson. And that lesson is that when it comes to actions that are politically divisive—whether it be enhanced interrogation techniques by CIA or by the U.S. military post 9/11 … people forget the U.S. military used enhanced techniques as well as CIA—and when it comes to controversial issues like drones, I think there’s a real danger in keeping those kinds of things secret. I think the government would be much better off being transparent about those kinds of things. Briefing Congress in secret, and getting Congress’ approval is not the same thing as being transparent with the American people and allowing a debate to take place about whether you should be doing those kinds of things or not. I remember Barack Obama once talking about one of these kinds of things, and I remember him saying, “We need to be able to be transparent about this because this is something that we’re going to have to do for a long time.” This is something the United States is going to have to do probably for a generation or two. And we can’t do that unless we have the support of the American people and we at least have international acquiescence. And the only way to get those two things—the support of the American people and international acquiescence—is to be able to talk about it, be able to talk about it publicly, be able to talk about why you’re doing it, to be able to talk about your success, to be able to talk about your failures, and what you’re going to do to make sure those failures don’t happen again.” So I think that’s the most important lesson. I think the only place we got in trouble post 9/11 is when we did things—ordered by the president, briefed to Congress, right? Everything was done by the book—but we didn’t talk to the American people about it and that I think is a really important lesson for any significant action the United States is going to take that you’re going to have to do for some period of time. I think transparency is a lot better than a lack of transparency.
CTC: As we take stock 20 years on from 9/11, is there anything else you would like to add?
Morell: An intelligence officer has a lot of different jobs. The main job is to accurately describe a situation that a president and his or her national security team, the country faces, to accurately describe that in all of its detail, in all of its complexity. But they also have another job, and the other job is to be able to accurately describe the way the adversary looks at the situation, to be able to tell President Biden, “Here’s how President Putin sees the world. Here’s how President Putin sees you. Here’s how the terrorists see the world. Here’s how the terrorists see us.”
So as I’ve been listening to people talk about the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and I’ve been listening to people talk about the great success we had post 9/11 in preventing another attack, and when I listen to myself make that argument, my training as an intelligence analyst leads me to ask, “Well, if bin Ladin were still alive today, how would he see the world? How would he see the movement he started?” And I think if he were alive and he kind of surveyed the landscape, he’d be pretty happy with where the movement stands. I think his assessment would be, look, on September 10th, 2001, there were a couple hundred terrorists, Islamic extremists in one country in the world; maybe a few others scattered here and there, but essentially in one country in the world, in Afghanistan. Today, there’s thousands of extremists scattered in dozens and dozens of countries, from West Africa up all the way to East Africa, through the Middle East into South Asia and all the way into Southeast Asia. And the United States, while not out of the Middle East the way that bin Ladin had hoped, this did lead us to fight two wars—one, the longest war in American history, one that we won in Iraq ultimately, and one that we lost, quite frankly, in Afghanistan. And I think he would look at us and say, “I significantly weakened them.”
So I think he’d be pretty happy with the state of affairs, and he would share the view that I have that this fight’s not over, that this fight is in some ways just beginning. So I think it’s important to look at it from the perspective of the adversary. CTC
[a] “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, and Disseminate (F3EAD), pronounced ‘F-three-e-a-d’ or ‘feed,’ is a version of the targeting methodology utilized by the special operations forces (SOF) responsible for some of the most widely-publicized missions in support of overseas contingency operations.” “F3EAD: Ops/Intel Fusion ‘Feeds’ the SOF Targeting Process,” Small Wars Journal, January 31, 2012.