By Eric Geller
Kenyon students and faculty listened respectfully as Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency who twice served as its acting director, described his positions on waterboarding, electronic surveillance and the overseas “covert actions” that the CIA conducts to advance American interests abroad.
They then peppered him with questions about the United States’ drone strike on two American citizens in Yemen, the CIA’s incorrect assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in 2003 and many other contentious topics that have defined almost a decade and a half of national security and civil liberties debates during his talk in Rosse Hall on Monday, Nov. 5.
For the most part, Morell staunchly defended the agency. He dismissed concerns that drone strikes represented a new form of warfare by comparing them to other “standoff” weapons, like cruise missiles and distant sniper teams, which the U.S. military has employed for decades. He also rejected the criticism that the CIA was too large and powerful, although he acknowledged that infighting among various “silos” within the agency had created problems.
One of the most contentious issues that Morell addressed was the series of CIA practices that the George W. Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation” and that human rights groups label “torture.” Commenting on this set of interrogation methods, which President Obama ended at the start of his presidency, Morell said they ran the gamut from reasonable procedures to morally questionable ones. He was not bothered, he said, by the practice of grabbing a detainee by the lapels of his shirt, but he said “some of the harshest techniques,” like forced nudity and waterboarding, were wrong.
In addition to addressing these specific methods and tactics, Morell also recounted several stories from his 33-year tenure at the CIA. In the early years of the Bush administration, he was in charge of presenting a collection of intelligence reports called the President’s Daily Brief to Bush every morning. This role meant that Morrell was traveling with Bush on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
As the audience listened quietly, Morell recounted what he saw, heard and felt that day. He described looking out the window of Air Force One as it arrived back in Washington, D.C., and seeing one of the two F-15 fighter jets that were shadowing the president’s plane. Behind the F-15, Morell said, he could see the Pentagon, still burning.
It was after this story Morell vividly depicted the most famous “covert action” in recent memory, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011. He described the nine-year process of trailing one of bin Laden’s couriers and stressed the pains that his agency took to build a strong case instead of a fast one. He mysteriously referred to two particularly noteworthy accomplishments that fed into the eventual raid, but said, “I can’t tell you how we learned these two things.” Morell did, however, tell the audience to imagine “two more really cool spy stories.”
Morell also mentioned that he heard chants of “CIA! CIA! CIA!” from the crowds that gathered spontaneously outside the White House on the evening of May 1, 2011 ﾖﾖ “something I have never heard before and something I will never hear again.”
Morell explained the success of the raid stemmed from Obama telling then-CIA Director Leon Panetta to make finding bin Laden “priority one.”
“Director Panetta ﾅ forced our counterterrorism guys to come to us once every two weeks and tell us, ﾑHow’s it going?’ Morell said. “And when you have to walk into your boss’s office every two weeks and report on what you’ve done in the previous two weeks, it kind of forces action in a way that is hard to see until you’re inside an organization someday.”
In the wake of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s document leaks, President Obama appointed Morell and four other people to a review panel that is tasked with evaluating U.S. surveillance practices. Morell would not discuss the panel’s work, saying that its members had decided to speak with one voice, but he did say that he believes the balance between security and privacy is currently “pretty healthy.”
Morell also described two misconceptions about the CIA he said the media had created. “One is that we are all-powerful, we are all-knowing, we are the Matt Damons of the world [as seen in the movie The Bourne Identity and its sequels]. The other is that we’re totally incompetent. We’re the Maxwell Smarts of the world [as seen in the comedy TV series Get Smart].”
In reality, Morell said, “We’re just like any other organization. There are things we do well, and there are things that we don’t do well.”