Why Michael Morell Cannot Be CIA Director

Gross manipulation of CIA analysis under George W. Bush pushed a new generation of “yes men” into the agency’s top ranks and now one of them is being considered by Joe Biden for the top job

Posted on

As President-elect Joe Biden names his cabinet and other chief advisers, what has escaped wide attention is the fact that none of his hawkish national security advisers – except for his nominee for defense secretary, Gen. Lloyd Austin – has served in the military.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who is reportedly on Biden’s short list for CIA director, shares that non-veteran status, one of the reasons along with other skeletons from Morell’s past that make him singularly unfit to lead the CIA.

During my 27 years at the CIA, I worked under nine CIA directors – three of them (Stan Turner, Bill Colby, and George H.W. Bush) at close remove – and served in all four of the agency’s main directorates.

Having closely followed the past-two-decade corruption of my profession – in particular, what the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee called the “uncorroborated, contradicted, or even non-existent” intelligence manufactured to “justify” the attack on Iraq, I have on occasion offered an suggestions for remediation, particularly during transition periods like this one. (Links to five such efforts in the past appear below.)

Whiz Kids

Decades of unfortunate experience show that over-dependence on bright, but inexperienced “best and brightest” can spell disaster. War gaming and theorizing at Princeton and Johns Hopkins have yielded knights with benightedly naive, politics-drenched decisions that get U.S. troops killed for no good reason.

Even if Gen. Lloyd Austin is confirmed as secretary of defense, the whippersnappers already appointed by Joe Biden will probably be able to outmaneuver the general and promote half-baked policies and operations bereft of needed military input – not to mention common sense from the likes of Gen. Austin who knows something of war.

The current generation of “whiz kids” – the well-heeled, politically astute chickenhawks Biden has appointed – will always “know better” and – if past is precedent – are likely to pooh pooh what Gen. Austin may advise, assuming he is able to get a word in edgewise.

Moreover, ambitious former generals like David Petraeus – many of them now on the outside of the proverbial revolving door making big bucks in the MICIMATT (Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-Think-Tank) complex – will not hesitate to weigh in with their own self-interested support to the chickenhawks, fostering the notion that military threats from notional enemies warrant still more funding for the defense contractors on whose boards so many alumni generals sit.

Who does not remember the braggadocio accompanying the criminal attack on Iraq, the full-throated support of journalists like David Sanger of The New York Times, and the chest-thumping of Bush/Cheney neocons saying “Real men go to Tehran?” (Sanger is still at it, sitting on the “Judith Miller Chair for Journalism”.)

Clearly, one does not have to go as far back as Vietnam for noxious examples of the harm that can be done by these “best and brightest,” albeit inexperienced advisers – whether out of the myth of American exceptionalism, ignorance of post-WWII military history, or pure arrogance.

It may be helpful to recall that Vice President Dick Cheney, the archdeacon of the chickenhawks, acquired five draft deferments during Vietnam. (So did his successor as vice president, the president-elect.)

Cheney, of course, was the driving force behind the attack on Iraq. He had appointed himself Bush’s principal intelligence officer (usurping the role of CIA Director George Tenet who made not a murmur of protest) and went first and biggest with the Big Lie on (ephemeral) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Here’s Cheney in his kick-off speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 26, 2002: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”

Simply stated, Tenet dutifully followed White House orders to “fix” the intelligence to support Cheney’s accusations against Iraq. Tenet did so formally in the deceitful National Intelligence Estimate of Oct. 1, 2002 – which earned the sobriquet “The Whore of Babylon.”

It was successfully used to get Congress to enable Bush/Cheney to make war on Iraq, and eventually create havoc in the whole region. In his memoir Tenet gave the laurels to Morell for “coordinating the CIA review” of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s UN speech that let slip the dogs of war. (Details on that below)

Cakewalks and Cubbyholes

Cheney, the quintessential chickenhawk, surrounded himself with advisers of the same bent. One pitiable example was armchair warrior Kenneth Adelman, who had been director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Reagan. In a Washington Post op-ed of Feb. 13, 2002, Adelman wrote: “I believe demolishing Hussein’s military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk.”

Two years later, Adelman wrote an equally pathetic op-ed, insisting that he and his neoconservative friends had been right on everything except Iraq possessing WMD, Iraqi factions cooperating after Saddam Hussein was deposed, and “probably” on close ties between Saddam and al-Qaeda.

As for Cheney himself, he did memorize some weapons nomenclature vocabulary, but could not avoid an occasional faux pas betraying his lack of familiarity with things on the ground. Nine months after the attack on Iraq, when WMD were still nowhere to be found, NPR asked Cheney whether he had given up on finding them.

“No, we haven’t,” he said. “It’s going to take some additional, considerable period of time in order to look in all the cubbyholes and ammo dumps and all the places in Iraq where you’d expect to find something like that.” (The continued, quixotic search cost not only a billion dollars but the lives of US troops.).

The amateur but opinionated Cheney was the largest fly in the intelligence ointment. Four months into the war it got so blatantly bad that we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) sent a Memorandum to President Bush entitled “Intelligence Unglued”, recommending that he “ask for Cheney’s immediate resignation.”

Naiveté on War

In a recent, disturbingly graphic article entitled “Biden’s young Hawk: The Case Against Jake Sullivan,” retired Army Maj. Danny Sjursen broadly hinted that President Biden’s national security adviser should at least look at the photos. (An editor’s note in the piece explained that such photos are almost totally absent from Establishment media: “Graphic images of war and suffering are included with this text. We believe it is important for the world to witness what their taxes, votes and apathy may be supporting.” )

In his article Sjursen finds himself wondering “whether Sullivan’s ever seen a dead child, gazed upon the detritus of American empire, waded through the sights and smells of our indecency. And, worse still, I wondered whether it’d matter much if he had. …”

The national security adviser is gatekeeper to the president, with the gate strong or weak depending – at least in concept – on what the president wants. In the normal course of business, the CIA director and the director of national intelligence would go through the security adviser to get to the president. Cabinet secretaries in the national security arena and, when appropriate, FBI directors often use the same channel.

What seems important here, though widely overlooked, is that no Biden national security appointee/nominee except Gen. Austin has apparently served a day in the military. Not Sullivan, not DNI nominee Avril Haines, not secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken, and not FBI Director Christopher Wray.

This is just one factor that should disqualify Morell for director of Central Intelligence (DCI). There are already far too many fledgling warhawks-without war experience. In Morell’s case, though, there are many other factors – some even more important – that disqualify him. His playing fast and loose regarding the legality and effectiveness of torture has been in the headlines recently, thanks to Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden (D-OR), who called Morell a “torture apologist.”

It has been a challenge to record Morell’s many artful dodges, but Consortium News did publish “On Iraq/Torture, Still in Denial”, as Morell began to peddle his memoir in May 2015.

Two of Morell’s tours de force with Charlie Rose in 2016, in which Morell advocates killing Russians and Iranians in Syria, were covered by CN.

More revealing still – and damning of his chances for another try at CIA – is an article, “Rise of Another CIA Yes Man.” That piece was written when Morell was picked to be Gen. David Petraeus’s deputy at CIA; it ends with personal comments by intelligence professionals who knew Morell well.

The article also includes citations from Tenet’s own memoir, including encomia he threw in Morell’s direction, one of which should actually be enough to bar Morell from any future role in intelligence.

In Tenet’s book, At the Center of the Storm, he writes that Morell “coordinated the CIA review” of the intelligence used by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his infamous Feb. 5, 2003 speech to the UN Security Council on the threat from (nonexistent) WMD in Iraq.

Tenet, who sat directly behind Powell on that day, pointed out that Morell had served as regular briefer to President George W. Bush. It has been reported that, of the CIA’s finished intelligence product on Iraq, it was The President’s Daily Brief delivered by Morell that most exaggerated the danger from Iraq.

Morell fluttered quickly up CIA ranks as the yes-sir protégé of two CIA directors who were, arguably, the worst of them all – “Slam-Dunk” Tenet and the-Russians-hacked-so-Trump-won John Brennan. During the presidential campaign of 2016, as Brennan and his accomplices in the National Security State worked behind the scenes to sabotage candidate Donald Trump, Morell dropped any pretense of nonpartisanship – which used to be the hallmark of an intelligence professional.

From retirement (but with eyes on the big prize he coveted in a new Democratic administration), Morell openly backed the Democratic candidate in a highly unusual op-ed in The New York Times on August 5, 2016: “I Ran the C.I.A. Now I’m Endorsing Hillary Clinton.”

Iraq: the Crucible

In my view, the key gauge in weighing qualifications for a national security position like CIA director is whether a candidate showed good judgment before the misbegotten, calamitous attack on Iraq.

Morell flunks that test outright. Accordingly, he can hardly be expected to be one of the calmer voices in a room of still less experienced fledgling hawks who, to quote Maj. Sjursen, have never “waded through the sights and smells of our indecency” in killing and maiming abroad. With Morell in the room, there would be greater risk of the US getting sucked into still more misadventures overseas.

What did Morell tell Bush about Iraq? In Tenet’s memoir, he describes Morell as “the perfect guy” to brief President Bush, noting that Morell and Bush hit it off “almost immediately”. Morell added later: “I was President Bush’s first intelligence briefer, so I briefed him kind of the entire year of 2001.”

‘The Entire Year 2001’

So, was Iraqi President Saddam Hussein trying to acquire “weapons of mass destruction” during 2001? The first (and honest) answer was ”No” – if Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are to be believed. Here’s what they said at the time – Powell publicly during a speech in Cairo and Rice to CNN five months later.

Powell on Feb. 24, 2001:

“He [Saddam Hussein] has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.”

Rice told CNN’s John King on July 29, 2001:

“We are able to keep arms from him [Saddam Hussein]. His military forces have not been rebuilt.”

Is this what Morell told Bush just six weeks before 9/11? Did Morell ever explain how Iraq could have developed, purchased, or stolen copious WMD in one year’s time?

And when Morell briefed Bush right after 9/11, was the president fixated on Saddam Hussein, as counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke describes him in his book Against All Enemies? According to Clarke, on 9/12 Bush told him “to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.”

Clarke says he was incredulous, replying, “But, Mr. President, al-Qaeda did this.” In later interviews Clarke added that he felt he was being intimidated to find a link between the attacks and Iraq.

Did Morell play it straight and tell Bush (as Clarke did) that Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the attacks of 9/11? Did Clarke share that vignette at the time with Tenet and Morell?

And what about those notional Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? After 9/11, did Morell take his cue from Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Tenet and give President Bush the impression that Iraq already had all manner of WMD and was on the threshold of acquiring a nuclear weapon?

Sham Dunk

Later, in December 2002 when Morell’s boss Tenet assured Bush and Cheney that CIA could prove, slam-dunkedly, the existence of WMD in Iraq, did Morell ever ask himself how both Powell and Rice could have been so far off base the year before?

Far more likely, Morell knew what the game was, as he watched Rice do a fancy pirouette, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Sept. 8, 2002 that “Saddam Hussein is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. We do know that there have been shipments into Iraq of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to nuclear weapons programs.”

The most accomplished engineers and technical intelligence analysts in the intelligence community knew that the aluminum tubes story was BS. In the finest tradition of intelligence analysis, they remained impervious to the political winds. They insisted that associating those aluminum tubes with nuclear weapons development was wrong and they could not be persuaded to go along. And yet that bogus information got into Powell’s February 2003 speech at the UN.

In Morell’s memoir he wrote that he wanted to apologize to Powell. Morell says, “We said he [Saddam Hussein] has chemical weapons, he has a biological weapons production capability, and he’s restarting his nuclear weapons program. We were wrong on all three of those.”

But not my fault, wrote Morell, who tried to shift the blame by claiming he was not a senior official at the time.

How does that square with Tenet writing that Morell “coordinated the CIA review” of Powell’s speech? Whom to believe? However begrudging must be any trust given “slam-dunk” and “we-do-not-torture”Tenet, he presumably would have less reason to dissimulate than Morell in this particular case.

Assuming Morell did “coordinate the CIA review” of Powell’s speech, did Morell know about the strong dissent on the infamous aluminum tubes?

More important, did he know that CIA operators had recruited and “turned” Naji Sabri, the Iraqi foreign minister (who Saddam Hussein continued to believe was still working for him) and, with the help of British intelligence, had “turned” the chief of Iraqi intelligence, Habbush, as well.

After the reporting from these two sources on other issues and after their access to secret information was evaluated and judged to be genuine, President Bush was told that Sabri and Habbush both said there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Sabri’s information was given to the president by Tenet on Sept. 18, 2002; Habbush’s in late Jan. 2003.

Did Tenet not share that with Morell before he coordinated CIA input into Powell’s speech?

Clearly, this firsthand intelligence from proven sources with excellent access did not suit the Cheney/Bush narrative for war on Iraq. The president’s staff told CIA operatives not to forward additional reporting on this issue from these sources, explaining that Bush did not want more information about weapons of mass destruction; rather, it was now about “regime change.”

Did Morell know about this when he was “coordinating” input into Powell’s disastrous speech? It is a safe bet that Morell was fully aware of the con job he was “coordinating” – as did other senior intelligence officials.

In his own memoir, former Director of National Intelligence (and, during Iraq, director of imagery analysis), James Clapper takes a share of the blame for the Iraq WMD fiasco. Clapper puts the blame for “the failure” to find the (nonexistent) WMD “squarely on the shoulders of the administration members who were pushing a narrative of a rogue WMD program in Iraq and on the intelligence officers, including me, who were so eager to help that we found what wasn’t really there.” (emphasis added) .

Regarding Morell’s “I-confess-they-did-it” apology to Powell, the still-youngish Morell has not stopped lusting for an eventual seat at the table, so he apparently thought it a smart move politically. Typically, Powell did not react – as far as is known. Nor has the conflict-averse Powell summoned the cojones to say clearly what he thinks of how Tenet, Morell, et al. sold him a bill of goods on Iraq.

In the “where-are-they-now?” department, Tenet quit in July 2004 and fled to Wall Street to be joined the following year by Jami Miscik, who was deputy director for intelligence during the Iraq fiasco. She “lucked into” a nice job at Lehman Brothers before it went bust.

Note to readers: If you know someone advising the Biden team on selecting a director for CIA, please pass this along.

Finally, those interested in suggestions from the experience of previous transition teams, please click on one or two of the links below. The key issues tend to remain the same. Above all, integrity counts.

Additional Readings

1 – A Compromised Central Intelligence Agency: What Can Be Done?
By Ray McGovern, 2004
Chapter 4 in “Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense: Restoring America’s Promise at Home and Abroad”, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004
Ray’s chapter follows chapters by Alan Curtis (editor), Gary Hart, and Jessica Mathews.
Link to Chapter 4 text

2 – Sham Dunk: Cooking Intelligence for the President?
By Ray McGovern, 2005
Chapter 19 in “Neo-CONNED! Again: Hypocrisy, Lawlessness, and the Rape of Iraq”, Light in the Darkness Publications, 2005?

3 – Try These on Your CIA Briefer, Mr. President-Elect
By Ray McGovern, November 8, 2008

4 – What Needs to Be Done in Intelligence (a memo for the Bush-to-Obama transition team)
By Ray McGovern. December 4, 2008

5 – US Intelligence Vets Oppose Brennan’s CIA Plan
By Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPs), March 9, 2015

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). This originally appeared at Consortium News.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).