Former CIA official takes aim at politicians

Story highlights

  • Michael Morrell spent more than 30 years at the CIA and rose to become deputy director.
  • He criticizes politicians from both parties in a new memoir

Washington (CNN)Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell takes aim at those whom he accuses of politicizing the efforts of intelligence services in his new book The Great War Of Our Time: The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism—From al Qa'ida to ISIS.

Politicians and policymakers from both parties come in for criticism, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and the Obama White House officials who helped write the talking points on Benghazi.
With the exception of America's enemies and one particular leaker -- about whom Morell says "Americans may well die at the hands of terrorists because of Edward Snowden's action," before proceeding through a series of attacks on the former NSA contractor's ego -- no one is held in more contempt by the author than those who twist the analysis and work product of America's unsung intelligence officials.
    The Obama administration suffers some of Morell's disdain in Chapter 10, "Stalking Points." The chapter is largely a defense of Morell's own role in the controversy over how Obama administration talking points about the September 11, 2012 attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya. Morell characterizes his critics's charges as a hunt for ways to show that the Obama administration was trying to "hide the hand of al Qa'ida in the attack and thereby protect President Obama's campaign theme that he was tough on terrorism."
    While fact-checking his critics, Morell also concedes mistakes by the CIA in the talking points debacle, though he insists they were made for editorial or otherwise innocent reasons (removing "Islamic" from "Islamic extremists" so as not to make a combustible situation even worse, for instance).
    But he then goes on to assail the White House's treatment of the finished work product, noting that "there was something different in the White House-produced points sent to [National Security Adviser Dr. Susan] Rice's staff." Morell singles out what many in the media noted, that in the "Goals" section of the talking points, it stated: "To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video and not a broader failure of policy." (Bear in mind that the 2012 election was just weeks away.)
    "The White House has argued that its talking points were not about Benghazi but about the broader protests taking place in the region," Morell writes. "But that explanation does not hold water --because just one bullet point later in the 'Goals' section of the White House talking points is the following: 'To show that we will be resolute in bringing people who harm Americans to justice' -- and the only place Americans had been harmed during that period was in Benghazi."
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    Morell concludes that the White House was "blaming the Benghazi attack on the video -- which is not something CIA did in its talking points or in its classified analysis." Stating his belief that a bright red line should exist between those White House officials responsible for national security and those in charge of politics, and "the line about how Benghazi was not a failure rooted in broader policy seemed to me to be a political statement not a national security one." Morell also tweaks Rice for saying on a Sunday show that there had been a "substantial security presence" in Benghazi, which wasn't in either the White House or CIA talking points.
    A White House spokesman said the book actually validates their side of the story.
    "Mr. Morell makes clear that the talking points surrounding the Benghazi attack were not politicized," said Ned Price, Assistant Press Secretary and Director for Strategic Communications, National Security Council. "What we said at the time remains true today: in the days after September 11, 2012, we were concerned by unrest occurring across the region and we provided our best assessment of what happening at the time.
    But the White House disputes Morell's characterization of the "Goals" section of the Benghazi memo.
    "The topline points in the released documents clearly are not specific to Benghazi," said Price. "And, as we've said before, our assessment of what took place in Benghazi evolved over time."
    The book covers Morell's 33 years in the CIA, including his briefings to President George W. Bush. After one pre-9/11 briefing, "UBL Threats Are Real," Bush told Morell, "OK, Michael. You've covered your ass."
    Critics might see this book as an attempt to do the same thing throughout decades of intelligence failures, though Morell concedes mistakes throughout its pages, offering an apology to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell for the intelligence community allowing since-discredited intelligence information into his United Nations speech sounding the alarm about Saddam Hussein, and providing insufficient rigor to CIA analysts' assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program.
    It is Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, however, whom Morell takes to task most strongly. In the section of the book about the Iraq war era, he takes aim at their insistence on suggesting there had been collusion between Iraq and al Qaeda.
    Morell recounts the CIA attempting to issue a paper in June 2002 concluding that "while there was some contact in the past between the two, there was no evidence of any working relationship before, during, or after 9/11, and no evidence of Iraqi complicity in or foreknowledge of 9/11."
    Libby phoned deputy director for intelligence Jami Miscik and told her to "Withdraw the paper!" She refused and said she would withdraw before doing so, a position backed by CIA director George Tenet. Concludes Morell: "Libby's attempt to intimidate Miscik was the most blatant attempt to politicize intelligence that I saw in thirty-three years in the business, and it would not be the last attempt by Libby to do so."
    Libby declined a request for comment.
    The claim that 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence officer Ahmad Samir al-Ani in Prague on April 9, 2001, had originated with Czech intelligence, but subsequent U.S. and Czech investigations seemed to unravel it. "The bottom line of the ensuing investigation was that the Czech story did not seem to be true," writes Morell, who singles out for criticism a particular senior White House official for continuing to keep it alive.
    "Despite our efforts to un-ring the bill on the Iraqi-al Qa'ida Prague connection, a few in the administration -- Vice President Cheney, in particular -- repeatedly raised it in public comments. There was no similar obsession with the matter on the president's part, however." Even after the CIA paper was issued in 2002, Vice President Cheney "continued to imply publicly that there was a current connection between Iraq and al Qa'ida. This was inconsistent with the analysis, but the implications continued -- all to the detriment of the American people's understanding of the truth."
    Cheney could not be reached for an on-the-record comment, but in his memoir, In My Times, the former vice president notes that Powell initially went even further than he did, telling Wolf Blitzer on CNN's Late Edition, "Certainly those meetings took place."
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    Cheney notes in his book that after he was told in the summer of 2002 that the case for Atta's Prague meeting "was weakening, I began to alter my statements," telling NBC's Tim Russert in 2003, 'We've never been able to develop any more of that yet, either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don't know.'" Cheney's memoir seems to suggest that he feels the CIA has been unfair in casting him as the leading proponent of the Iraq-al Qa'ida connection, stating that he was "careful with what I said -- and disappointed when Director Tenet later erroneously wrote that I continued to claim the story was 'pretty well confirmed' after the CIA began to doubt it."
    Cheney also suggests that there was much disagreement within the Agency, and much murkier information coming from the CIA than is currently being claimed. While Morell describes the June 2002 memo as definitive, the Cheney book refers to a letter from then-CIA director Tenet to the Senate from October 7, 2002, that claimed "solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade" and "Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression." Tenet in his own memoir, At The Center of the Storm: My Years At The CIA, says the Agency's initial answers to questions about the Iraq-al Qa'ida relationship "were inconsistent, incomplete and often had to be revisited."
    If Morell had never seen intelligence politicized as much as Scooter Libby politicized intelligence, he holds out the so-called Senate "torture report" as "one of the worst pieces of analysis that this thirty-three-year veteran of analysis at CIA has ever seen."
    The report by the Select Senate Committee on Intelligence, headed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on the U.S. government's use of enhanced interrogation techniques, many of which are considered torture under international law, bears much criticism by Morell; he asserts myriad errors of fact, logic and context. Moreover, he asserts that the enhanced interrogation techniques "were effective," regardless of debates about the morality.
    "It appears to me that the staffers wrote the report that they thought their political masters wanted to see," he writes. "Senator Feinstein also bears significant responsibility for the many flaws in the report. She made her very strong views on the appropriateness of CIA's program known to her staff—a step that undoubtedly made it difficult for those writing a report to be objective."
    Asked for comment, Feinstein told CNN that "Morell's new book repeats the same false charges made by other former CIA personnel when the Senate Intelligence Committee's CIA torture report was made public in December 2014. This is not surprising considering the book's coauthor helped coordinate the CIA's unofficial response to the committee's study and co-wrote two other books with ex-CIA officials—George Tenet and Jose Rodriguez—that also attempted to justify the CIA's failings."
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    The California Democratic senator went on to say that "the committee's report speaks for itself. It is based on millions of CIA's own documents and internal communications—and those records support the study's findings and conclusions. I believe the Senate report will stand the test of time. The report's 500-page executive summary has been declassified and is available for all to read. While Mr. Morell was one of the relatively few people with access to the full 6,700 report, he told me before his retirement that he did not read it. Specifically, the accusations in this book that committee staff wrote a report to reach a preordained outcome—that it was a 'prosecutor's brief' and that I directed staff to reach certain conclusions—are completely false and entirely without support. In fact, the Senate report reached many of the same conclusions as the CIA's own internal study, now known as the Panetta Review."
    Despite that blowback from Democrats, many Republicans regard Morell as complicit in misdeeds by the Obama administration. Recalling his participation in Sarah Palin's first national security briefing after she joined the GOP ticket in 2008, he assessed that "her knowledge of the world was diametrically opposed to that of her running mate. She knew almost nothing about the key foreign policy and national security issues of the day...She was in over her head, she seemed to me to know it, and it was not her fault. I felt sorry she had been put in that situation."
    When asked for a comment, Palin told CNN, "Get in line - behind Obama's entire failed leftist team. Morell is actually defending Hillary on Benghazi and he had the talking points on Benghazi sanitized after innocent Americans were murdered. This shill for the radicals who lie to America whitewashes Benghazi, disgraces the sacrifice of fallen patriots who spilled blood for our freedom, yet thinks it's important to spill ink on a woman who would love to debate him on all things 'heartland America.'"
    Clearly, despite Morell's attempts otherwise, his will not be the last word.