Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

The Former CIA Director Came to Kenyon

Adam Egelman
November 6, 2013

“Don’t go to the Cove, Sir.” 
-Me to the former Acting Director of the CIA

On Monday, the Center for the Study of American Democracy hosted former CIA Deputy and Interim Director Michael Morell to speak about his career as one of America’s top spy chiefs. He’s not a household name, but Mr. Morell has been at the center of almost every global conflict involving the US over the past ten years and was at the forefront in the war on terror. He retired in August after a three decade-long career at the Agency.

Mr. Morell focused on his last fifteen years at the CIA where he worked closely with Presidents Bush and Obama. He was a central figure in the operation that led to Bin Laden’s death, which was preceded by a more significant and powerful event. September 11, Morell said, was a seminal event and changed the Agency. On the day of the attacks, he was in Florida with President Bush, tasked with briefing him on U.S. intelligence affairs.

He recalled seeing on TV those trapped in the upper floors jump from the incinerating towers; a scene I remember all too fully, as well as the smoke which was visible from my bedroom window.

After witnessing the second plane crash into the South Tower on TV at the elementary school, Morell and his team knew this was an orchestrated plot, and they looked to potential groups and countries that could be behind the attacks. Every state on the list was ruled out, he explained, because no enemy nation could accept the risk that carrying out such a plot would ensue. Morell was confident that the attacks were an act of a highly-organized extremist group, not state-sponsored terrorism. That afternoon aboard Air Force One, President Bush met with Michael Morell alone in his cabin. “Who’s behind this” the President asked. While there was no concrete evidence at this point, Morell admitted, he was the one who delivered the now-infamous “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” memo one month prior. He told the President “I would bet every dollar I have that it’s al Qaeda”

Mr. Morell ended his 9/11 account with a lasting memory from the Air Force One flight. Looking out of the window, he noticed the escorting fighter jet near the wing of the plane. Morell could see the pilot, his face, and his composure. The burning Pentagon filled the background.

That day, Mr. Morell acknowledged, changed the way he saw his job and the critical role that the CIA plays. Intelligence is the reason why no major terrorist attacks have taken place on US soil since 9/11, and Morell believes the the country is still at significant risk, making the CIA’s role even more crucial.

In light of the recent NSA leaks and other events regarding the methods US intelligence agencies employ to collect intelligence, Mr. Morell vehemently defended how the CIA gather data and described the extensive bureaucratic process needed to actually see and analyze information. He supports the reevaluation of these intelligence-gathering programs, but he argued that the leaked NSA documents are incredibly damaging and places the U.S. at risk.

It’s because of these programs, Morell argued, that Bin Laden was located. He repeated much of the widely known details of the search: the CIA found the compound by way of Bin Laden’s couriers. He couldn’t speak in detail about how they followed these leads and picked up new ones that have yet to enter the public realm. Mr. Morell admitted that “it would make for a great spy novel.” He also wished someone along the lines of Brad Pitt could have played him in Zero Dark Thirty

The Q&A that followed was just as fascinating, especially when a student recommended he visit the Cove afterwards. When asked about his views on “enhanced interrogation” techniques such as water-boarding, Morell admitted, to my surprise, that he felt the CIA should not use some of the more extreme tactics despite their legality and effectiveness.

When I was up, I asked how he handles the partisan and political theater when Congress brings in the CIA given its controversial activities and political relationship with the President. I cited the Congressional meetings about the Benghazi attack he and Susan Rice attended. He expressed frustration over certain Congressional Republicans’ focus on the how the administration communicated the event to the public. Instead, Morell said, they should have focused on the actual problem and the Americans who lost their lives.

I also suggested that he should not visit the Cove; I think he listened.

I don’t remember much else, probably because I was in awe that I was speaking to our nation’s former “Top Spy.” As a diehard news junkie and recently-decided Political Science major, a Monday night couldn’t get any better.

The Center for the Study of American Democracy holds events and invites speakers throughout the year. During the 2012 election they hosted the only debate between the local congressional candidates, and more recently, the CSAD invited a former FISA court judge to speak. Check them out.