Michael Morell. The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From al Qa’ida to ISIS by Michael Morell. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, May 12th, 2015. 384 pp.
They say the fourth branch of government is the bureaucracy—those men and women of the government who are not elected into office but who nevertheless play a key role in government policies from their day to day duties in various government agencies and services. The intelligence community has their own bureaucracy and this is a memoir of one of them who went on to retire in his three decade career with the CIA as one of its deputy director. While the word “bureaucracy” probably doesn’t sound interesting this book is far from boring since it is about one of the world’s famous intelligence agency and the author managed to write in a way that held my attention up to the very end. A big factor is also the subject matter: This is an insider’s look at CIA’s effort with the war on terror by an important player in that war. And while the CIA went through the book to ensure no classified information was leaked, I was still surprised at how much the author could share in the book.
Picking up the book I didn’t know what to expect; I didn’t even know who the guy was. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a partisan defense of various administration’s policies. The fact that Morell served under Bush and Obama and had good things to say of both presidents was a good sign that he’s out to defend one administration over another. The fact that he was willing to admit when the intelligence agency messed up and even publically apologizing to Colin Powell in the book concerning the bad intelligence surrounding Iraq’s WMD project was even more surprising. I think over all it seems Morell wanted to present to the readers the truth.
Morell discusses the CIA’s effort and limitation in dealing with Al Qaeda pre-9/11. Resources was lacking and capabilities weren’t there to effectively engage in covert operation against Al Qaeda. The chapter on 9/11, titled “The Darkest Hours” was an emotional read and I teared up. At that time Morell was the president’s daily briefer and he was with Bush when the attack happened. I don’t think I could ever read anything about 9/11 without being emotional. To understand the author’s motivation in fighting Al Qaeda one must understand what 9/11 meant for Morell and others at the agency. Equally emotional for me was reading about the CIA’s first casualty in the war on terror—Mike Spann, an agent who was killed in Afghanistan from a prisoner uprising. Morell gives us his account of how he briefed President Bush and how he read the entire report of the agent’s death quietly.
As we all know, focus shifted away from Al Qaeda and unto Iraq around 2002 and 2003. Morell defended the agency against those who accused the CIA for being biased in their analysis of Iraq’s WMD capabilities. As a career analyst himself, Morell explains that the nature of analysis is not to align with partisan policies but to provide the information for politicians to dictate policies. His main point here was that the issue with Iraq was not the result of politicians tampering with the agency but the intelligence community worldwide was wrong in their evaluation on Iraq’s WMD program. I think he has a point, as he cited even intelligence reports from other countries and also within the US during the Clinton administration. What I like about the book is that it isn’t just a blame-shifting memoir; Morell also described how he and others within the agency tried to learn from their mistakes and institute changes such as requiring analysts to now give how much percentage of confidence they have in their report.
Morell’s discussion about the changing nature of Al Qaeda is helpful in understanding why at times the West was “winning” against Al Qaeda but then Al Qaeda manage to sneak back into the headlines with some awful act of terror. Morell manage to even talk about Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS.
I think the most fascinating discussion in the book that is unique compared to other works out there is that Morell discusses the issue of torture as an agency insider. He argues that the agency has tried very hard to work within the legality of the law such as consulting with the Justice department to review their interrogation techniques. He also mentioned about the origin of some of the enhanced interrogation techniques coming from contractors with the agency who consulted for the CIA in light of their background of teaching the military’s course on survival, escape and resistance torture. Morell argues that the agency was careful with these recommendations and even flat out reject some techniques. More fascinating to me is the statistics given that no more than a hundred has ever faced enhanced techniques and even then it was for a limited time duration. The statistics breakdown surprised me how infrequent it occurred. Morell also admitted in the book how he was uncomfortable with waterboarding but he also reminded readers of the dilemma the agency was in concerning getting information from those who were out to hurt innocent people and fellow Americans.
The book’s discussion on Snowden, the killing of Bin Laden, Arab Spring and Bengazi are also intriguing. I think I’ve written enough in this review to say that this is a book worth reading!