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Reporter’s Notebook: Ex-CIA Official Talks Bin Laden, Drones, Intel

Michael Morell: Who Should the US Support in Syria?
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Michael Morell: Who Should the US Support in Syria?

Former Deputy CIA director Michael Morell was a willing witness to some of the greatest events in my generation, and an unwilling participant in others. He stood next to President Bush on September 11, 2001; he was beside CIA Director Leon Panetta during the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden; and at times he was at the center of the political firestorm surrounding the 2012 Benghazi attack.

Morrell spent more than 30 years with the CIA – including stints as its acting director – so the single hour I had to interview him seemed like a fraction of the time needed to cover the events Morrell no doubt has more unique insight into than (literally) almost any other person in the world.

But it didn’t take long to find what reporters call “the lede” in the interview.

“Syria is the hardest [foreign policy] matter I've ever seen in 33 years in government. Why? There’s not just one war going on in Syria, there’s actually multiple wars going in in Syria,” said Morell.

He explained that Bashar al-Assad’s secular government is fighting Syrian rebels as well as Islamic extremists, including al Qaeda and the militant group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS or ISIS). And most of the groups opposing Assad are also fighting each other. For the U.S., there’s no clear side to ally with, and no foreseeable outcome that fits neatly with its foreign policy goals.

And, as Morell explains in his new book, the U.S. played an unwitting hand in the creation of the militant group wreaking the most havoc in the region.

“ISIS began with the fall of Iraq and when U.S. troops left – they got stronger,” he said.

Triumphs and regrets

Morell’s role in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 speech to the United Nations – now infamous because Powell presented bad intelligence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction – is among Morell’s chief regrets.

He attempts to correct many wrongs in his book, including that central piece of the Iraq story. Morell said Powell once told him, “This Iraq/WMD thing is going to be on my tombstone.” Morell owns up to the bad intelligence in his book, writing, “I would like to use this opportunity to publically apologize to Secretary Powell.”

The killing of Osama Bin Laden remains one of the greatest successes in the mind of the former Deputy Director.

“It was one of the most remarkable things the CIA ever accomplished” he said.

When President Obama asked Morell to give an assessment of the probability of Osama Bin Laden being at the compound before the raid – Morell put it at 60 percent. In fact, he told the president that the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been better than the case for Bin Laden being at the compound.

Morell also discounted the recent Seymour Hersh article that offers a very different version of the events surrounding the raid than the account presented by the U.S. government.

“It was all rubbish,” Morell said. “I’m speculating that the Pakistanis are peddling this to save face.”

Drones are effective; Nightmare scenario

While fully admitting that U.S. drone strikes have provided terrorists a valuable tool for recruitment, he stands behind the program fully.

“[Drones] are the most effective weapon against attacks,” he said. “The propaganda that drones afflict collateral damage is not true. It is spread by people who want the drone program to go away.”

Despite his confidence in the drones are helping prevent attacks, the former CIA official said another successful attack on the U.S. is still the thing that sometimes keeps him up at night.

“It’s a terror group with weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “A terror group with a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon.”