Ex-CIA Official Talks Security

Wednesday, October 01, 2014
Hanover — A former deputy and acting director of the CIA was introduced as “the most interesting man in the world” to a packed auditorium at Dartmouth College during a public conversation on Tuesday afternoon in Hanover.

Daniel Benjamin, the director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth, gave the introduction for Michael Morell, the former CIA official who took part in the public conversation as part of a weeklong visit to the campus.

Benjamin, himself a former counterterrorism official, described Morell as someone whose job required that he be “up to speed on everything going on in the world in a way that no one else had to.”

Morell accepted Benjamin’s introduction humbly.

“I didn’t recognize the guy you were talking about,” he said.

Morell said that in the movies, senior CIA officials are played by “dashing” actors, whereas after a particularly short haircut, Morell’s daughter informed him that he looked like Forrest Gump.

Benjamin interviewed Morell on stage for an hour before inviting questions from the audience. The discussion covered Morell’s passion for the job as well as a wide variety of threats facing the United States, including the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL, and instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Morell described the threat ISIL poses as “significant.” He said ISIL clearly is a threat to American citizens abroad. In addition, because Americans, Canadians and western Europeans have joined the extremist group, there is a risk that they could return and conduct an attack on American soil, he said.

“If ISIS has a safe haven in Syria or Iraq for an extended period of time, it could put together an al-Qaida-style attack,” Morell said.

He expressed support for the Obama administration’s strategy in Iraq to encourage the formation of a government that is representative of the Iraqi people and airstrikes to protect Americans, civilians and infrastructure. But he was less enthusiastic about a path forward in Syria.

He said the extremists have found fertile ground in Syria during the civil war there.

They “went to fight (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad), who was slaughtering his own people,” he said.

Morell described the Syrian civil war as “the most difficult policy problem” that he had seen in his 33 years in the CIA. Instead of one war, Morell said, there are now five wars taking place in Syria: The civil war between Assad and his own people, a war between Shia and Sunni Muslims, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Assad fighting al-Qaida and one branch of al-Qaida fighting ISIL.

Unlike in Iraq, Morell said there is “no one to fight the ground war” in Syria, and the insurgency can’t be defeated from the air.

“We don’t have anyone fighting on our side in Syria,” he said.

Morell said it would be possible to train the moderate opposition in Syria, but he predicted that would take two or three years.

The political solution would be Assad stepping down without destroying the country’s military, intelligence and other essential institutions, he said.

While he described the strategy in Syria as “weak,” he said he is “not sure how to make it stronger.”

He predicted “my children’s and my grandchildren’s generations are still going to be fighting this fight.”

From the audience, John Walsh, of West Lebanon, asked whether the lack of a “retention of forces agreement” factored into the rise of ISIL.

While Morell said he didn’t know whether to blame President Obama or former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the failure to reach an agreement to keep some U.S. troops on the ground, he did say it “would’ve been helpful to have those troops there.”

“I hope people are thinking about what happened in Iraq when they’re thinking about whether to leave troops behind in Afghanistan,” he added.

Morell described Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan as “one of the most dangerous” threats to American security.

He described Pakistan’s education system as “broken” and the country’s economy as a “disaster.” He said he worried that there is a potential for Islamic extremists to take over the government, which would be particularly frightening because of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Despite his fear of terrorists with nuclear weapons, Morell said his biggest fear for the future is the “failure of the political system here in the U.S. to make decisions that move our society forward.”

Following the discussion, Dartmouth sophomore Hannah Petrone, who plans to declare a major in government, said she was impressed with the “amount of knowledge” Morell was able to impart clearly.

Morell encouraged the students in the audience to consider a career in intelligence. He said he felt a “passion for the job” similar to that depicted in Homeland or Zero Dark Thirty.

In his 33 years in the CIA, Morell said there “wasn’t a single day that I didn’t want to go to work.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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