A stan­dard yet solid in­sider’s view on CIA

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Tony Perry

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.”

WinMcNamee Getty Im­ages

MICHAEL MORELL, former act­ing head of the CIA, writes on the Iraq war and Beng­hazi at­tack.


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