The Great War Of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From Al Qaida to ISIS
By Michael Morell, with Bill Harlow
By Michael D. Langan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Michael J. Morell, the retired deputy director of the CIA, and 33-year-veteran analyst and briefer for the agency to the White House, writes a history of his career in “The Great War Of Our Time.” In it he looks at the rise of organized global terror and the reasons for its development.
Morell is a smart guy, and he brings an “aw shucks” element to his writing, which would be endearing and believable if he were writing about almost any other subject than the CIA.
The author knows what to say and what not. He co-authors “The Great War…” with Bill Harlow, a retired Navy captain, who spent seven years as top spokesman for the CIA. Harlow also co-wrote George Tenet’s earlier book, “At the Center of the Storm.” The problem I see with “The Great War ….” Is indicated in the subhead of its title, “The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism …” Is the CIA a separate country? What ever happened to sharing intelligence?
Here is Morell’s explanation for why he wrote the book. The author first thought that when he was asked to do the book, he shouldn’t do it. But when pressed by a good friend, he doesn’t say who, he felt compelled to say, “Yes.”
Why doesn’t Morell tell us who made the request? Think about who might have asked him. Could it be someone from the agency for whom he worked? This possibility passed my mind. Maybe it was the corner butcher or greengrocer.
At first, Morell thought about not writing the book: “No that is not what professional intelligence officers do.” But he changed his mind for these reasons:
• First, he wanted to tell the CIA’s story about how the agency came to America’s rescue after nearly 3,000 people were killed in September 2001. No department or agency has done more to keep the country safe, he says.
• Second, he thinks that more can be shared about what the agency does every day. He wants to get rid of the “Jack Ryan” myth that the CIA is invincible. He also wants to dispute the view that the agency screws up everything it touches.
• Also, Morell would like to dispel the impression that the CIA is a rogue agency, basically the “Jason Bourne” myth from the popular book and film series.
Instead, he writes what he’d like people to believe: “The Agency is a secret organization operating in a democracy, and that the American people need to have confidence that the Agency is functioning both effectively within the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Nice words, but can they be true? This last encomium of Morell’s will raise the gorge reflex of many Americans. Why?
For this reason: Almost every week there is a report of what must surely be illegal or immoral activity performed by the CIA itself or farmed out to minions in other countries.
The New York Times noted an example of this in an editorial June 6, headlined “Describing More CIA Torture.” In that piece the Times noted a Reuters report from recently declassified documents. In these materials, Majid Khan, a high value prisoner affiliated with Al Qaida described more torture on him by the CIA than what was reported in an earlier, excoriating U.S. Senate report. Khan describes what he called “violent enemas” and says he was anally assaulted in a process the interrogators call “rectal feeding.” “I wish they had killed me,” Khan said. The Reuters report continues, “Then he was moved among a series of CIA-operated black sites … where he was hung naked from a wooden beam for three days, shackled and starved.”
Perhaps the U.S. Senate and Reuters are dupes of an al Qaida agent who is making up stories of his alleged torture by the CIA. This is not beyond belief. Nor is the buildup of evidence about black sites. Still what about these alleged inhuman activities? It’s hard to know.
One doesn’t have to be a religious zealot to wonder what happened to the concept of morality if these allegations are true. (I know the opposing argument: “Deal with an immoral enemy the way it deals with you.” But if you believe in American ideals, this appeal is humbug.)
Lastly, Morell is anxious to tell Americans that the threat of terrorism is real and has not gone away. “It will be with us for decades to come, and, as a nation, we must be prepared.” Otherwise, he says, we’ll face another devastating attack on our homeland with certainty.
He’s right about this. The only question is “when.”
Here’s Morell’s take on major issues.
• Before 9/11 there was insufficient support for research into Bin Laden and al Qaida.
• Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations which concludes with Powell’s apology was the result of “a failure of intelligence collectors – CIA and the NSA – to penetrate Saddam’s inner circle, where they might have been able to learn ‘the truth’ about weapons of mass destruction.”
• About the Benghazi talking point controversy: The issue of whether “the Obama Administration deliberately played down the terrorism of the attack” is a shining example of how not to respond to a national security crisis. Lesson learned, Morell asserts: “CIA should stay out of the talking point business.”
Morell’s got to be kidding. Not working up talking points will never happen.
• Cheney and his aid Scooter Libby (later convicted of a felony), bent facts to connect Iraq and al Qaida. Morell says Libby’s attempt to intimidate CIA personnel “was the most blatant attempt to politicize intelligence that I saw in 33 years.”
• Each of the principals involved in the presidential decision to raid the bin Laden compound ranged from 40 to 90 percent in guessing the probability that Bin Laden was there.
On Edward Snowden’s activity: Morell calls it “The greatest compromise of classified information ever.”
• Looking at the new threat posed by ISIS: “The Khorasan Group – ‘Surely will’ turn their attention to attacking the United States.”
• About Boko Haram: Its savagery is remarkable and “because of the Nigerian diaspora … it will allow Boko Haram operational advantage.”
• Of the CIA’s “first customer” - the presidential daily briefings – Morell liked President George W. Bush. He thought Obama took too much time thinking over issues.
• Saddam Hussein miscalculated American intentions. If Saddam had been told straight up that the United States would deploy troops and combat aircraft … he would not have gone in.
• Behind the scenes at the CIA: “Most covert actions leak. But, contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not Congress that leaks – there are exceptions. It is generally the White House.
The title of the book is a sign of how badly our government’s security blanket is torn and rent. Every agency is like a suzerainty, an equivalent caliphate with its own rules. Regrettably, “The Great War” doesn’t ring a clarion bell about how our nation should prepare for what seems the next inevitable attack on the United States. Instead, another June 7, 2015, front page story in the New York Times indicates that a different kind of “great war” may be developing - led by the United States.
The story is headlined “Quiet Killings, Blurred Lines And A New Kind of American Warfare.” One is tempted to ask “Who’s guarding the guards?”
Michael D. Langan is a retired U.S. Treasury enforcement official. He served as a senior expert with the United Nations Monitoring Group that dealt with al Qaida and the Taliban.