A standard yet solid insider’s view on CIA
The Great War of Our Time The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism— From Al Qa’ida to ISIS
Michael Morell, with Bill Harlow
Twelve: 384 pp., $28
In his book “The Great War of Our Time,” former CIA deputy Director Michael Morell explains the blunder that led to Saddam Hussein being deposed and sent him into hiding in a spider hole.
Hussein, Morell writes, had overestimated the U.S. intelligence-gathering capability.
The Iraqi dictator wanted to maintain the bluff that he had weapons of mass destruction to keep “his number one enemy,” Iran, at bay. His mistake was in assuming U.S. intelligence would realize he did not have WMD and would “eventually lower the (economic) sanctions and, more important, not attack him.”
Among the other nuggets in Morell’s book, subtitled “The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism — From Al Qa’ida to ISIS,” is this: Once captured, Hussein grew a beard to flirt with the nurses. Again, a miscalculation.
For three decades, Morell worked at the CIA, rising to acting director before retiring in 2013; he is now a national-security correspondent for CBS News. He briefed Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Hewas, inCIA lingo, “read into” the top issues of theday, puttinghim inside “the circle of knowledge.”
The book wasvetted by the CIA. Do not expect blockbuster secrets. Or a tough-minded analysis of the agency. Morell calls himself a “Midwestern straight-arrow.”
His analysis of the presidents is standard stuff. Bushwas decisive if a bit impetuous. He quotes the commander-in-chiefswearing during a briefing: “F— diplomacy. We are going towar.”
Obama, Morell said, is thoughtful but slow to make a decision: “…the president also had a way of making decisions that satisfied competing factions among his national security team.”
Morell is less enamored of former Vice President Dick Cheney, his aide Scooter Libby, former CIA Director Porter Goss and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. But his criticism remains lowkey.
Muchof the book is meant to set the record straight on how preIraq war intelligence got messed up and what happened during the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, when the U.S. ambassador and three U.S. personnel were killed and a diplomatic facility destroyed.
Point by point, Morell takes on the critics, particularly in regard to the accusation that the CIA and White House tried to spin the story with false “talking points” for political purposes. “No committee of Congress that has studied Benghazi,” he declares, “has come to this conclusion.”
Indeed, Morell insists, only one CIA judgment, made within 24 hours of the incident, has proved wrong: the conclusion that the attack was a protest that went violent, not a planned assault.
“CIA should stay out of the talking-point business,” Morell suggests, “especially on issues that are being seized upon for political purposes.”
Still, it is doubtful “The Great War” will silence those who question the CIA, Presidents Bush and Obama, and former Secretary of State HillaryRodhamClinton.
On the question of how Osama bin Laden was able to escape from the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001, Morell writes that, “Theforces that would have been necessary to boxhimin, to keep him from fleeing over the border into Pakistan, had simply not been there.”
Other accounts give a different version: that there were sufficient forces there, or close by, including Marines from Camp Pendleton whowere at Kandahar, but that an order came from higher authority for the U.S. to let the Afghans take over. If Morell knows anything about this, he’s not telling.
Morell joined the CIA out of college and never stopped being impressed by the organizationand its people. CIAemployees are “the finest public servants” he knows. CIA analysts are a “terrific group.” That CIA employees drove back to work after the 9/11 attacks was “stunningly patriotic.”
Even the Christmas party at CIA headquarters comes in for praise, particularly during the tenure of Leon Panetta: “If you are in the national security business, it is the place to be. People arrive early and stay late.”
His respect for his former employer aside, Morell admits that the agency was wrong to let thenSecretary of State Colin Powell go to the United Nations with assertions about Hussein and WMDs that were at most estimations: “…CIA and the broader intelligence community clearly failed him and the American public.”
In passing, Morell mentions tension between the CIA and the National Security Agency and between CIA station chiefs abroad and the analysts back at Langley, Va. More on that would have been welcome.
More insightful books on the CIA have been and will be written. Butaninsider’s view, evenonewith suchamildtone, isagoodaddition, particularly for those of us not in the “circle of knowledge.”
MICHAEL MORELL, former acting head of the CIA, writes on the Iraq war and Benghazi attack.