[This article and interview are adapted from an item written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of books including Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars — a history of the Mossad and other security agencies.]
Michael Morell, the CIA veteran who recently retired and wrote his memoirs, understands why Israel’s prime minister rejects President Obama’s strong desire for a deal with Iran. And, having heard that Israel may have some tacit understandings with the al-Qaeda affiliate, Syria, Morell strongly counsels against that path.
From his vantage point of 33 years as a professional intelligence officer, Morell has strong advice for to Israel. “Don’t make deals with them. Pressure them. Fight them. Turn against them, otherwise they will turn against you.”
The former deputy director of the CIA’s comments were made in response to a question regarding reports in the Arab and international media that – in order to maintain peace and tranquility along its border with Syria — Israel has reached some understandings with the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Nusra controls most of the Syrian side of the border along the Golan Heights.
“From my experience following al-Qaeda, I think and believe that you must not try to cut deals with them. Pakistan tried to do it with these guys telling them: ‘We won’t attack you if you don’t attack us.’ But it is a dangerous game. Even if you cut a deal with them, they won’t honor it.”
Morell knows the Israeli intelligence community very well. He has visited Israel and met in Washington many times for professional meetings with his Israeli counterparts from the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Aman — the military intelligence agency known in foreign encounters as Israeli Defense Intelligence.
Last week, he granted a special interview to The Jerusalem Post, the first of its kind to an Israeli media outlet. It coincides with the publication of his book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qaeda to ISIS, which he wrote with Bill Harlow, a former longtime spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Morell was born in 1958 in a small town in Ohio. He finished his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Akron and Georgetown University, respectively, and was recruited to work as an analyst in the CIA.
He spent most of his career in the Directorate of Intelligence of the agency, and in addition to reaching the No. 2 position in the CIA, he also served twice as acting director: once in 2011, after director Leon Panetta became secretary of defense, and a year later, after Gen. David Petraeus stepped down as a result of his extramarital affair.
After Morell’s retirement two years ago, he joined the private sector as a consultant to Global Beacon Strategies and to CBS News.
One of his most exciting and prestigious assignments was to serve as the CIA’s daily briefer for “Customer No. 1” – the agency’s nickname for the President of the United States. In that capacity, after nine months on the job he found himself traveling with President George W. Bush to visit a school in Florida. It was September 11, 2001. At 8 in the morning, Morell walked into the President’s hotel suite.
“Michael, anything of interest this morning?” Bush asked his intelligence briefer.
“On the most important day of President Bush’s tenure,” recalls Morell, “his intelligence briefing was unremarkable, focusing on the most recent developments in the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Contrary to media reports, there was nothing regarding terrorist threats in the briefing.”
With impressive honesty, Morell admits that when he first heard that an airplane had hit one of the twin towers in New York City, “my guess at the time was a small plane had lost its way in bad weather and, by accident, had crashed into the World Trade Center.”
Later, the Secret Service rushed the President and his staff to Air Force One, and they took off to an undisclosed destination. America was under attack.
Morell was aboard, trying to figure out what really was happening.
When the media reported that the Democratic Front for Liberation of Palestine, led by Nayef Hawatmeh, was responsible for the attacks on U.S. soil, Morell told Bush that the DFLP “is a Palestinian rejectionist group with a long history of terrorism against Israel, but they do not possess the capability to do this.”
A little later, while the information was still blurry, Morell was ready to take a risk and speculate, “I would bet every dollar I have that it’s al-Qaeda.”
Nevertheless, he doesn’t conceal his self-criticism that 9/11 exposed the failure of the American intelligence community, led by the CIA, to anticipate and prevent the attacks.
At the same time, he is very proud of the agency’s success in eventually tracking Osama Bin Laden and killing him in 2011 in his Pakistani hideout.
Yet the CIA, according to Morell, can’t rest on its laurels. He thinks al-Qaeda is still a very dangerous organization posing a serious threat to the U.S. and the West.
Question: More than Islamic State?
“I distinguish between the two only because everyone does. But I think that both groups have the same goals, both believe in the same ideology, both are equally violent and evil. And actually I believe that al-Qaeda poses a greater threat to the U.S. and the West than Islamic State.”
“Because al-Qaeda has better and greater capabilities. I am worried about the situation in Yemen where al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is located.
In the past, the government there fought against terrorism. But now because of the civil war they stopped. AQAP has very good bomb-makers. The bombs were so sophisticated they were not detected by airport machines. Only due to good intelligence, several of their lethal plans to bomb airplanes were prevented.
I am also concerned about another al-Qaeda entity – Khorasan Group – sent from Pakistan by Ayman al-Zawahiri into Syria. There are indications that the two groups cooperate with each other.”
Al-Qaeda confirmed this week that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of AQAP, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. What is your answer to the claim that both al-Qaeda and Islamic State were created as a result of U.S. involvement in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the ’80s and the U.S. toppling of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003?
“It is ridiculous. It is an attempt to revise history. There are many reasons for extremism and these terrorist groups would have been created regardless of U.S. politics and actions.”
Morell shared an entertaining anecdote about Saddam in his book, which explains why the deposed Iraqi dictator grew a beard during captivity.
Morell says a clean-shaven Saddam was taken for medical treatment under U.S. custody, and tried to flirt with the nurse, to no avail. When he asked his U.S. debriefer – whom Saddam had become friendly with – why the nurse wasn’t interested, the American escort told the Iraqi dictator (in jest) that it was because American women like men with facial hair.
Saddam walked into the courtroom a few weeks later with a wild beard. Commentators concluded that he was trying to look Islamic to appeal to religious elements in court. “It was a humorous example of Saddam’s misjudging Americans,” wrote Morell.
But this could also be said about the United States – that it doesn’t understand the Middle East and that its actions in the war against the terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria are weak.
“Yes, I know. But I am convinced that the Iraqi government in the end will regain the lands Islamic State has captured from them. It will take a few years, maybe three or four, but it will happen. We can’t fight instead of the Iraqis.”
And what about Syria. It seems the U.S. has no clear strategy?
“Yes, Syria is a big mess. Everyone is fighting everyone. There is a war there between a dictator and his people. A war being fought between emissaries of Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Shi’ites and Sunnis, between secular groups and fanatic Islamist organizations.
I don’t think anyone has an idea or plan of how to resume stability in Syria. To be honest, I must admit that I can’t answer how to solve the problem there. I can only say that efforts must be made to ensure that the mess in Syria doesn’t spread to nearby states, like Jordan or Israel.”
You mentioned Israel. Could you describe the relationship between the CIA and the Mossad?
“I won’t go into details, and I am going to be careful. I can say that the CIA has ties with many intelligence agencies in the world. Some of these relationships are more developed, and others are less developed.
With Israel’s intelligence community – not just the Mossad – the relations are some of the best in the world.”
And the political problems and disagreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama don’t disrupt the cultivation of intelligence ties?
“One of the nice things about intelligence cooperation is that it goes under the political radar. Even in times of political crisis, the ties and cooperation continue and sometimes even help reach a solution.”
What do you think of the Israeli intelligence people you have met with?
“I think they are some of the best in the world. Not just professionally, but as people too. I have only praise and admiration for them.”
In the past, American intelligence officials have made remarks indicating that Israel manipulates intelligence information to influence them, is that true?
“I have never experienced anything like that, and I never thought that Israeli intelligence was trying to ‘sell’ us something that we didn’t believe or that we thought was untrue. Nevertheless, certainly, sometimes your political leaders take stances that are not compatible with your intelligence positions.”
Are you referring to the disagreements between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran’s nuclear program?
“Yes, that is true, with regard to Iran, but I won’t go into details. I can only tell you that the argument is not about whether Iran poses a threat, but rather how close and tangible that threat is.”
Does that mean you agree with the assessment that Iran poses a threat?
“Yes, of course. Completely. But keep in mind that the nuclear program has three foundations. One is to achieve fissile material. The second is to build a bomb, and the third is to have delivery means. Most of the world’s deliberations are focused on the first stage. And here, too, a distinction must be made. Everyone is trying to understand what happens at the facilities designated for enriching uranium. But Iran has already declared them, and we know about them.”
You mean the facilities at Natanz and Fordo?
“Yes. But I think we should be much more concerned that maybe Iran has other secret facilities that we don’t know about.
The facility in Fordo was covert, but it was exposed thanks to good intelligence. So why do we think that they built only one and not more facilities that still haven’t been discovered? That is the great danger.”
Explain the problem with the covert uranium enrichment facilities.
“If they don’t have a covert facility, it will take them three or four years from now to build one. If they started building it three or four years ago, then by today they would already have one that we don’t know about. What I learned in intelligence is that I don’t know what I don’t know.”
How far do you think Iran is today from a bomb?
“When I was working, it was two to three years. Since then, they have advanced in shortening time. Without inspection and a deal, Iran would be able to produce its first bomb in two to three months.”
Do you support a nuclear deal with Iran?
“Because I don’t know the details, I can’t say. There are differences between what the U.S. says and what Iran claims. I think the deal the U.S. agreed to is a pretty good deal because of the inspection regime.
As an intelligence officer, I also ask, what is the alternative? There are two alternatives: To go back to where we were, with no negotiations, sanctions continue and are even harder – and they continue to work on their program. What is the implication of that? That the time to a bomb, would be reduced from two to three months to weeks.
Another alternative is a war, which would send a powerful message that we will not allow them to have a bomb. I am worried about such alternatives. There is a debate in Iran about what they should do with their nuclear program. A military strike would strengthen the hard-liners, who would say it wouldn’t have happened had we had nuclear weapons. That would enhance their efforts to get the bomb.”
Still, do you understand the Israeli prime minister’s position?
“Yes I do. The difference between the President and the prime minister is easy to explain. The President focuses on getting a nuclear deal, which would take us from two or three months to one year from a bomb. The prime minister is focused on the bigger problem of Iran: What to do about their support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and insurgents in the region, such as in Yemen, and their desire for regional hegemony, and their calls for the destruction of Israel.
The prime minister focuses on all of these in addition to the nuclear program, and he says the sanctions are good, let’s continue – because the Iranian behavior will not change.”