Here at Yale

Stories of a spymaster

Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell gives Jackson Institute students an inside look at the modern intelligence agency.
Michael Morell.
Michael Morell (Photo by Doga Unlu)

It’s not often that an audience is warned that the featured speaker has an operative in the room, as Jackson Institute of Global Affairs director Jim Levinsohn did one recent evening. But Michael Morell, former deputy director and acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, quickly retorted, “Actually, I have several.” (The one Levinsohn had in mind was Morell’s daughter Sarah, an MAS candidate at the Jackson Institute.)

As the host of the podcast “Intelligence Matters,” Morell is accustomed to asking probing questions of guests like former Secretary of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, and National Cyber Director Chris Inglis. At this event in Yale’s Horchow Hall, though, Morell was on the other side of the table, facing a room filled with students from the Jackson Institute.

He was joined by Beverly Gage, professor of history and American studies, who began by confessing two ulterior motives in her role as interlocutor: her forthcoming biography of infamous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and a new seat on the CIA Historical Review Panel, which provides recommendations for the declassification of records with historic import. “So I’m constantly thinking of the challenges and hopes of the CIA,” she said.

Morell has the crisply parted hair and dark-rimmed glasses of a lifelong civil servant. But he’s relaxed a bit in his new role as author and podcaster (“a no-barrier-to-entry industry,” he commented self-deprecatingly). There was no tie in sight, and he wore the button of his collar undone.

Gage observed that the room was full of students considering a career in public service: “Could you narrate how you came to this?”

As he told the students, he’d been on his way to getting a Ph.D. in economics, at the University of Chicago, when he was invited to come to Washington D.C. for an interview with the CIA. He’d never been to the capital city before, so he went for the trip, thinking he’d never join. But he found himself taken with the agency and its work.

I was blown away by the mission of the place, an objective truth-telling about what the national security threats and challenges facing the United States look like,” he said. “Most important, I was blown away by the quality of the people I met and the sense of family.”

I said yes, and never looked back.”

Gage asked him to talk about two cataclysmic events that he witnessed from the inside: the fall of the Soviet Union, and September 11. “These were seen as moments of significant intelligence failure,” she noted. “What was their impact on the work that you were doing?”

When I was the head of analysis at the CIA, and when I was deputy director, we tracked how well we were doing on analytic judgements,” Morell said. “We looked at each judgement a year later — what we got right, what we got wrong, what we didn’t know yet. And our batting average was 80%. That felt pretty good — we got a lot right.”

Answering Gage’s question directly, he noted that the CIA had an accurate long-term view on the collapse of the Soviet Union, even if they didn’t identify the specific time frame. The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he went on, were more complicated. Morell, who was the CIA briefer for President George W. Bush that morning, noted that the agency had issued strategic warnings about Osama bin Laden for years. The failure was two administrations not responding to those strategic warnings and the intelligence community not providing tactical warning of the attack — obtaining the kind of intelligence on the specific 9/11 plot that would have allowed its prevention.

There’s not an organization that doesn’t make mistakes,” Morell said. “It just so happens that CIA’s mistakes are front-page stuff.”  Indeed, he didn’t go easy on the agency. “If I were going to grade the things that the CIA does, I’d give a B for analysis, a C-minus for collection, and a D for covert action,” he said. (“If we ever get you to teach here, we’ll have to talk about the grading scale,” Levinsohn joked.)

He brought up another question he’d been pondering recently, given the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this past September: how would Osama bin Laden assess the world today and the state of the movement he started? “I think he’d look at the proliferation of his ideology as a success,” he said. “Before September 11th, there were a couple of hundred adherents to his beliefs in one country. Now there are tens of thousands spread across the planet. I think he’d also say he weakened us significantly as a country, fighting two wars and spending trillions of dollars.”

The discussion moved on, ranging over the power competition currently brewing between the U.S., China, and Russia and the impact of technology and social media on traditional spycraft. Between biometrics and Facebook, “the idea of meeting clandestinely on the streets of some countries is no longer possible,” Morell observed.

After delving into the controversial past of secret CIA programs — since reforms in the 1970s, Morell said, “everyone owns covert action, even Congress” — the students jumped in. The questions touched on Afghanistan, the importance of understanding quantum computing for the next generations of intelligence agents, and whether defensive mechanisms (such as hardening domestic targets) or offensive means (such as overseas collection of intelligence) were most responsible for the preventions of major domestic attacks.

Morell gave each one a considered, detailed response, thoughtfully pulling out the nuances of each question, and the audience followed the threads raptly. It was a master class in assessing global power dynamics and threats for a cohort of students who are poised to become leaders in grappling with these issues.

These are great questions!” Morell said at last, pausing the interrogation. With mock seriousness, he added, “This isn’t leaving the room, right?”

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