When the history of United States in the 21st century is written, the role of the Central Intelligence Agency will loom large in its early chapters. Two of the spy agency’s mistakes had terrible consequences for the future of the country. First, it failed to detect the September 11 plot. Second, it issued a faulty estimate that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, which led to a major war. What went wrong?
Not long ago, Michael Morell hung up his trench coat after a 31-year career in the agency that took him from an entry level position to an array of high-level postings, ending up as CIA deputy director under Barack Obama. His memoir, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism—From al Qa’ida to ISIS, offers a tour of agency successes and failures and also explores a number of other highly controversial matters, including the “enhanced interrogation” of terrorists, and the agency’s convoluted role in the 2012 Benghazi imbroglio.
Morell’s career exposed him to a diverse array of agency activities, especially the year he spent as the principal CIA briefer for President George W. Bush. In the summer of 2001, Morell found himself in the Oval Office telling the president that the “system was blinking red” with signals that a major terrorist strike was imminent. Not long after, he was with the president in Florida at the instant that word came through about a plane flying into the World Trade Center. Needless to say, Morell’s reconstruction of such moments makes for a gripping tale.
Morell traces the agency’s efforts to understand and counter the rising threat posed by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. George Tenet was Bill Clinton’s pick as CIA director and Morell was his executive assistant who saw everything Tenet did up close. Counterterrorism in those years was not, as Morell writes, a “front-burner issue,” and al Qaeda was only a blip among many on the radar screen. Yet George Tenet had the problem very much on his mind. In 1996, after the name of Osama bin Laden kept showing up in raw intelligence reporting as a terrorist financier and/or plotter, the agency created a unit called Alec Station to find out more about him. Tenet was mobilized and “we were not sitting on our hands,” writes Morell, but unfortunately the agency as a whole, “with the exception of Alec Station, did not take al Qaeda as seriously as did its director.”
One sign of this lack of seriousness was the inappropriate background of the man selected to run Alec Station. “I couldn’t get over that the leader of Alec Station,” Morell writes, “an officer by the name of Michael Scheuer—was not a trained operations officer and that few operations officers played a significant role in the unit. “ Not only did Scheuer lack the requisite experience for the job, he was also “a zealot” who was “constantly getting into fights with the FBI, the NSA, and his own bosses.”
Part of this behavior stemmed from Scheuer’s justifiable frustration that his superiors were not taking the bin Laden threat with sufficient seriousness. But part of it was the fact that the CIA had placed someone with an unhinged personality—a man with a “penchant for angering anyone who didn’t see things exactly as he did”—into a critical job. Morell’s verdict is harsh. The inadequate work of Alec Station “significantly lowered the chances that we would detect an attack in preparation and disrupt it” and indeed the shortcomings of the unit “helped lead to the bombings of embassies in East Africa” in 1998. Matters only began to improve after the attacks, when Scheuer was removed from his post and Tenet put the agency on a war footing to meet the al Qaeda challenge. Unfortunately, the Clinton White House, preoccupied with the Monica Lewinsky drama in that critical year, then dropped the ball. Morell’s overly diplomatic judgment is that “much more could have been done on the military and paramilitary fronts” but President Clinton “faced constraints on how far he could go.”
The genesis of the Iraq WMD fiasco, like the 9/11 fiasco, has been explored in depth by a bipartisan government commission. Morell adds some insights and some color to existing analysis. He explains what he calls the “largest failure in agency history” by reference to a swarm of biases that fatally undermined the agency’s analytical product.
Analysts were prone to “hindsight bias”: having failed to discover Saddam’s nuclear program in the early 1990s before the first Gulf war, they did not want to make the same mistake twice. Because of “analytic creep,” mere assumptions about Saddam Hussein hardened into firm convictions. Saddam was known to possess chemical weapons, having employed them against the Kurds; thanks therefore to “historical bias,” analysts believed he still possessed them. Analysts also succumbed to “review bias,” which led them to ignore outlying possibilities in favor of the most likely finding. On top of that, there was “confirmation bias,” which Morell defines as “the tendency to accept facts as true if they support one’s view and reject them otherwise.” The worst lapse of all, recounts Morell, was a failure by analysts to “rigorously ask themselves how confident they were in their judgments.” If they had seriously pondered that question, they would have arrived at the answer: “not very” instead of the “slam dunk,” with which Tenet reassured the president that weapons of mass destruction were in Iraq.
In telling this story, Morell takes up the question of whether the Bush administration attempted inappropriately to shape the CIA’s intelligence reporting for ends of their own. He notes that Vice-President Cheney—accompanied by his aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby—made frequent visits to CIA headquarters. “The vice president was thorough and came armed with a lot of questions, but he did not push a particular line of argument” (emphasis in the original). There was nothing untoward about such visits; “Asking a lot of questions was his right—indeed, his responsibility.” On the other hand, Morell also recounts an episode in which Libby pressed the CIA hard to withdraw a paper asserting that there was “no working relationship” between al Qaeda and Iraq before, during, or after the 9/11 attacks. Morell calls Libby’s importuning “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.”
Morell is a shrewd bureaucratic operator, with a wealth of experience in national security. How should we appraise his account? Overall, his book is thoroughly researched and carefully written, as one would expect from the work of a master briefer. I found myself persuaded by his treatment of some issues. He offers a thoughtful examination of the “enhanced interrogation” controversy, concluding that for Bush it was a “Lincoln moment,” a juncture where a president chose to violate basic principles “because he thought it necessary to save the Union.”
Especially cogent is Morell’s account of the Benghazi affair, in which CIA generated talking points seemed to give political cover to the White House following the murder of the American ambassador to Libya and three other American officials on September 11, 2012. Morell acknowledges his own mistakes and mistakes by the agency in the episode, but they appear to have stemmed more from sand in the bureaucratic gears than any effort to protect Team Obama as the electoral contest with Mitt Romney was drawing to a close. (White House and State Department manipulation of the CIA-generated talking points for political ends is, of course, another matter entirely.)
But not every aspect of Morell’s account is equally compelling. For one thing, George Tenet gets an unwarranted pass. Amid other glowing terms, Morell describes his boss as “brilliant in an unthreatening way.” Tenet may be that and more, but it remains difficult to credit Morell’s assertion that in the mid-1990s the CIA director was taking the al Qaeda threat “seriously,” that he was “focused on it, laser-like,” and that “the terror threat was the single issue that would keep [him] up at night.” Even on the evidence that Morell himself presents this is hokum and bunkum.
Was it laser-like for Tenet to have allowed the CIA’s al Qaeda unit to languish for critical years under the ministrations of the ill-equipped Michael Scheuer? Among other things, Morell recounts that he himself suggested to Tenet—before the embassy bombings—that Scheuer should have been shifted away from responsibility. Tenet took no action on that suggestion until after Americans had died.
A more central indicator is the progression of National Intelligence Estimates about terrorism. NIEs are the most authoritative pronouncements of the intelligence community; when issued, they often have a major influence on the direction of national policy. In 1995, two years before Tenet assumed the directorship, the CIA issued a National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism that presciently mentioned both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as possible future targets. The agency updated that NIE in 1997, adding six pages that mentioned Osama bin Laden, but only in passing. Neither the twin embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 nor the attack on the U.S. S. Cole in 2000 prompted Tenet to return to the problem. Only after 9/11 did the CIA issue a new NIE on terrorism. Tenet was not exactly shaking the trees on this critical subject. One can appreciate the fierce loyalty that Tenet inspired in the people with whom he worked, including quite evidently Morell, but as the man running the CIA when it committed what were perhaps its two most consequential lapses ever, his place in history does not look particularly heroic.
Regarding Morell’s allegation that Scooter Libby attempted to politicize intelligence, the story he tells is incomplete. However much the CIA regards itself as a paragon of deep and dispassionate expertise, that was not the view from all quarters within the Bush administration—and for good reason. Coming into office, President Bush himself found CIA reporting to be sub-par. Morell acknowledges that there were occasions when the president would read a particularly banal CIA brief and then sarcastically utter, “Duh, no shit.” As a result, Tenet had to “routinely pull pieces” from the president’s briefing book “either because they told him something he already knew or because the analysis was not insightful enough.”
But beyond superficiality, there was the long and familiar record of CIA analytical and collection failures. Among other things, the agency missed the first Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949, the outbreak of the Korea war in 1950, the first Soviet H-bomb in 1953, the outbreak of the Suez war in 1956, the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba in 1962, the Egyptian attack that started the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the Iranian revolution that same year. Understanding secret adversaries is a very difficult challenge, and even the best spy agencies in the world regularly get even the most important questions wrong. In the wake of the 9/11 lapse and all previous lapses, President Bush and his men would have been irresponsible if they did not look at CIA judgments sideways and upside down.
The dispute with Libby over the CIA’s appraisal of al Qaeda ties to Saddam Hussein must be understood in the context of this history. The CIA may be completely correct in maintaining now that the ties were minimal, buy that is certainly not how things looked to some at the time, including to some in the CIA itself. Indeed, just months after the quarrel with Libby, Tenet himself wrote to Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, offering a declassified summary of what the agency believed. The letter read, in part:
We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda going back a decade.
Credible information indicates that Iraq and Al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal nonaggression.
Since Operation Enduring Freedom, we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of Al Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.
We have credible reporting that Al Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to Al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.
Iraq's increasing support to extremist Palestinians coupled with growing indications of relationship with Al Qaeda suggest that Baghdad's links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action.
Morell does not take up this letter and the studies on which it was presumably based. If Libby and others were skeptical of CIA certitude and pressing hard for a change in a CIA judgment, they had no shortage of valid reasons for their stance.
While casting aspersions on agency outsiders, Morell conspicuously elides those episodes where insiders themselves appear to politicize intelligence. The most notorious recent example is the declaration in the unclassified summary of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This startling finding was reached, as a footnote reveals, by excluding from consideration “Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.” In other words, relying on a preposterously narrow definition of a “nuclear weapons program,” the NIE injected a profoundly misleading assertion into the bloodstream of national debate, thereby altering the direction of American policy.
The charge of politicizing intelligence is a sword that can cut two ways. Between his soft-pedaling of George Tenet’s lapses, his hard-pedaling of Libby’s alleged transgressions, and his non-pedaling of the CIA’s own serious misdemeanors, one puts down Morell’s engrossing volume with a feeling of regret that he does not seem in every instance to have called things as they actually were.