How CIA really works (or doesn't) and whose actually in charge: Crucial insights from Michael Morrell's new book

The Washington memoir is usually a boring and unilluminating literary genre.   But the newly published book, “The Great War of Our Time,” written by Michael Morell, is both fascinating and revealing. It is also extremely sobering.

Morell is the recently retired deputy director (and twice acting director) of the Central Intelligence Agency. The war he refers to in his title is the Islamic jihad (both Sunni and Shi’ite varieties) being waged against the United States and its allies in the Middle East and beyond.

The Central Intelligence Agency is divided between operational and analytical branches.  The operators are the men and women in the field who gather intelligence; the analysts are the ones at headquarters who study the product, make sense of it and pass their conclusions on to the policy makers.  Morell comes from the analyst camp, and the fair-minded and logical tone of the book reflects it.

Morell unabashedly loves the CIA and the men and women who work there. But he is clear eyed about the Agency’s failures, which are many and sobering.

This isn’t to say that Morell was a desk-bound nerd.  He got around.  As George W, Bush’s daily CIA briefer, he was with the president on 9/11, and played a key role in guiding Bush’s understanding of the world, as seen by the Agency.  He was in the situation room when President Obama gave the order to kill Usama Bin Laden.  And he undertook many secret wartime missions to Iraq and Afghanistan and, after the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, to Egypt, Libya and other Middle Eastern hotspots..

CIA directors come and go and Morell has something interesting, and often amusing, to say about most of them. 

He loved working with the down-to-earth George Tenet, who sang Aretha Franklin tunes and occasionally dibbled a basketball through the halls of the Agency.

He appreciated the profane worldliness and political savvy of Leon Panetta.

He has especially high praise for Gen. Mike Hayden, who was supposedly picked to quarterback his high school team simply because he was so much smarter than everyone else.  G

eneral David Petraeus, whom Morell briefly replaced as head of the CIA, was not a favorite. The two got along, but Petraeus was widely seen as cold and self-important, and few at the Agency regretted his departure.

These and other portraits shed a lot of light on how the CIA runs and who runs it.

Unlike most D.C. memoirists, Morell is even- handed and direct in his opinion of politicians.  He loves George W. Bush like a father, but accuses Dick Cheney of trying to interfere with the CIA’s assessment of the Saddam Hussein-Al Qaeda relationship.  He admires Barack Obama’s brilliance but faults him for being an often hesitant leader

Some of his strongest criticism is directed at Diane Feinstein, whose Senate committee investigation of CIA interrogation techniques are depicted as a dishonest, partisan smear job.

Morell unabashedly loves the CIA and the men and women who work there.  But he is clear eyed about the Agency’s failures, which are many and sobering.

During the Clinton administration, he reports, the CIA mistook Al Qaeda for a simple terror group, misreading its strategic goal of creating an international caliphate.  This was still true when George W. Bush came into office.  The intelligence on Bin Laden’s organization was “weak” and reactive, unable to give the president more than general warnings about the threat posed by Al Qaeda.

Another blunder came in the form of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which judged that Iraq was continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction of the kind that had been working on before the 1991 Gulf War. George Tenet famously told President Bush that this analysis was conclusion was a “slam dunk”—an opinion that helped convince the president that Saddam was too dangerous to remain in power.  In the event, there was no WMD program. “We were wrong about almost everything in the NIE,” Morell admits.

The Agency also got the Arab Spring backwards.  It chose to believe that the overthrow of (dictatorial) American allies and the rise of (elected) Islamist regimes would be good for US interests. Astonishingly, the CIA really thought that the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo would enlist on the American said in the fight against the Sunni jihad.

This is an awful lot to get wrong, especially in a region that Morell calls, “the most important place on the planet—the Middle East.” It is especially sobering in light of his conclusion that the “great war of our time” against armed Islamic holy war and terrorism will continue well past our time, into the lives of our children and grandchildren. This is, I am afraid, one analytical judgement that is absolutely correct.