Preet Bharara: Mike Morell, thanks for being on the show.
Michael Morell: It’s great to be with your Preet.
Preet Bharara: So, I got to ask you a question. You and I both been involved in some transition. You were a member of the intelligence community for a very long time, and now you’re kind of a journalist. What does it feel like to have gone from being on the front lines of protecting America, to becoming the enemy of the people?
Michael Morell: So, actually it’s a great-
Preet Bharara: You’re allowed to laugh.
Michael Morell: It’s a great question.
Preet Bharara: I meant that in jest.
Michael Morell: Yeah, no. But, it’s a great question. So actually the two professions are similar. Both of them search for the truth, both of them rely on sources to find that truth, both of them protect those sources. So they’re actually very similar. When I started working for CBS News as an on-air commentator, I saw my role in a similar way to my role when I was Deputy Director. And in that job, my job was to help the president understand what was happening in the world, and how to think about it. And I saw my job, as an on air commentator for CBS helping the American people do that. That was a parallel. And now as a podcaster, there’s another parallel, which is that before I used to go to the White House for deputies meetings, principal’s meetings. I would get really smart people in the room, who knew the issues, and I would ask them a thousand questions. And now, that’s what doing a podcast feels like to me.
Preet Bharara: Right. Why the CIA? Did you watch movies about spies when you were young?
Michael Morell: No, actually, I ended up there almost on a fluke. So, I majored in Economics as an undergraduate, and I fell in love with it. I thought it not only explained how the economy worked, I thought it explained human behavior as well. And, I wanted to go to Grad School, get a PhD and teach at the university level. That’s what I wanted to do. And I had a professor who I think did some work for the CIA. I never could find that out. He died pretty early in life.
Preet Bharara: Meaning you suspected that he had an alternate life.
Michael Morell: He might have done some research for CIA. Nothing spooky, but just-
Preet Bharara: Was it the with kind of scarf he was wearing? What was it?
Michael Morell: It was more the research he was doing in international economics. But he encouraged me to apply to the agency. He said, “They hire a lot of folks with Economics degrees.” So I did, and I was invited to Washington and here I am, this middle class to lower middle class kid from Akron, Ohio. We had never been to Washington. And here the CIA’s inviting me. And so I go, not to take the job, but to see our nation’s capitol on the taxpayer’s dime. So, I go for two days of interviews, and I talked to 10 people. And in those two days, I am blown away by the mission of the place just to protect America, I am blown away by the quality of the people that I met, and I’m blown away by the capabilities of the organization. And they say to me … Preet, they say to me, “You know this Grad school thing you want to do, that you keep talking about in all these interviews? We’ll take care of that. You come work here, and we’ll pay for that. We’ll send you back to school full time down the road,” which they did. And so I said yes, and never looked back.
Preet Bharara: What’s the coolest part of being in the CIA for you?
Michael Morell: I can’t tell you that.
Preet Bharara: Oh, yes you can. I’ve heard you say it.
Michael Morell: So, obviously there’s a lot of cool stuff that we can’t talk about. Most of it being spy gear, James Bond kind of spy gear. That’s cool.
Preet Bharara: You can tell us … Tell us about that one gadget.
Michael Morell: Gosh, I don’t know. A gadget that’s not classified. Let me think about it as we talk here. Maybe we’ll come back to this.
Preet Bharara: Can you ask you this?
Michael Morell: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: If the public were to find out the nature and capabilities of some of these gadgets, would they be blown away? Or they’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve seen that in bond films.”
Michael Morell: They’d be blown away.
Preet Bharara: They would.
Michael Morell: They’d be blown away.
Preet Bharara: Okay. Well, you can tell me after.
Michael Morell: But I think, when I was Deputy Director, I traveled a lot overseas. Probably once every six weeks, I would travel for a week, and visit our stations overseas and visit our foreign counterparts. And one of the things that I did when I went to every CIA station, is I would take the first tour operations officers. So, this is their first experience overseas, and I would get them in a conference room and I’d put them around a table and I’d just say, “Tell me about the cases you’re working. Tell me about the assets you’re running. Tell me about the people who are on the road to recruitment. Tell me what’s working, what’s not.”
Preet Bharara: So, we’re clear for lay people, because it sounds like a very cool phrase. ‘Assets you’re running’, you’re not talking about stocks and bonds.
Michael Morell: No, we’re talking about spies.
Preet Bharara: Human-
Michael Morell: Human beings.
Preet Bharara: … beings who are acting as spies for the United States.
Michael Morell: They are working for the United States of America.
Preet Bharara: But who are not Americans.
Michael Morell: But who are not Americans. So, they may be an official in a foreign government. They may be inside of a terrorist group, they may be inside of a drug trafficking organization. These are people who work clandestinely for us to give us information to keep us safe.
Preet Bharara: So the recruiting process is very important. What can you say to us in a public forum like this, about how recruits are targeted, and then how they are actually brought into the fold?
Michael Morell: It’s a great question, and it starts with what information do we not have that we need? It could be something about the North Korean nuclear program, or the Iranian ballistic missile program. Or what have you. Some piece of information that we need in order to understand the threats to the United States. So what do we need? Where is that information? Right? And what entity does that organization lie? What specific office? Who works in that office? What do we know about those people? Do they travel? Where do they travel? All right? So it’s identifying specific people who you then look for opportunities to meet, to get to know, to assess what their vulnerabilities are. And vulnerabilities is a funny word here, because unlike some of our foreign counterparts, we don’t use negative inducements.
Preet Bharara: Like blackmail.
Michael Morell: [crosstalk 00:23:21] to spy, we do not blackmail because ultimately you don’t have control over those people when you do that.
Preet Bharara: So, you’re looking for people who may be disaffected?
Michael Morell: We’re looking for people who may believe in the United States and what we stand for. Freedom and democracy and human dignity. People who may believe that their government is not headed in the right direction, and they want to change that in some way. People who believe that maybe the relationship between their government and our government needs to be better. People who have a financial motive, people who maybe want their kids to go to school in the United States.
Preet Bharara: So financial motive, meaning the CIA will pay.
Michael Morell: CIA pays its assets.
Preet Bharara: How much do they pay their assets?
Michael Morell: It depends on the quality of the information.
Preet Bharara: What’s a high end payment for an asset?
Michael Morell: In the millions.
Preet Bharara: In the millions. See, my parallel experience when I became US attorney and before that I knew but didn’t fully know, because I had to sign off on certain things. The amount of money paid to a high end confidential informant. We used to joke that when I leave the US attorney’s office, I’m going to become a CI, because … So, it’s a lot more money than podcasting.
Michael Morell: Well, it depends on the information you have, right?
Preet Bharara: Yes.
Michael Morell: The run of the mill information is a lot lower.
Preet Bharara: Have you, in your career, personally recruited assets?
Michael Morell: No, but I always wanted to, right? So I grew up on the analytic side at the agency and I spent a lot of time obviously, with operators and ultimately overseeing operations and approving them, but I never did it myself. There was a couple of people I knew later in my career, who I thought were recruitable who I knew and I said, “Hey, can I recruit them?” And the answer was, “Absolutely not. No way. No how.”
Preet Bharara: So, let’s say you identify somebody who has information about North Korean nuclear program, or some other thing. That person is not approached right away, and it sort of a little bit like flipping a witness in the criminal context. Is it a week’s long process? Is it a month’s long process? Can it be a year’s long process?
Michael Morell: From months to years.
Preet Bharara: Years long.
Michael Morell: Months to years. Right? And when you are ready to make the pitch, when you’re ready to ask this person to spy for the United States of America, you’re 99.9% certain the person’s going to say yes, because you’ve done so much work up to that point.
Preet Bharara: You’ve done work persuasively in some ways, or just figuring out who they are? It seems odd to me that you would be that close to certain, if no one has made any kind of pitch yet.
Michael Morell: They might’ve actually shared some information. They might’ve gone over the line already, right? But no, you’ve spent all this time getting to know them, understanding them, understanding why they do what they do and what their mindset is, and again, what their vulnerabilities might be. Why they might want to work for us. You know pretty well … And you’ve got all your approvals from headquarters, right? This is not something you can do totally on your own.
Preet Bharara: Right. How many levels of approval for one asset?
Michael Morell: It depends. It depends again, on what you’re talking about. But at minimum a couple of levels back at headquarters.
Preet Bharara: I’m going to keep asking you questions that you might not be able to answer, but you can tell me you can’t answer them.
Michael Morell: Sure.
Preet Bharara: In any given time, how many assets would the agency have?
Michael Morell: That I can’t answer.
Preet Bharara: Is it in the thousands? Is it in the hundreds?
Michael Morell: It’s in the thousands.
Preet Bharara: It’s in the thousands.
Michael Morell: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And are they all kept track of in one system?
Michael Morell: No.
Preet Bharara: Because that would be dangerous.
Michael Morell: It’s dangerous. In fact, CIA has … Cyber is a huge threat as you know, and obviously we have an air-gapped system, right? Top secret system, but we don’t even keep everything on that system. Our most sensitive secrets are kept in paper, inside of a vault that only a few people have access to.
Preet Bharara: There are some things … You were the acting Director of the CIA and Deputy Director. So you’re at the very top. Are there some things that are kept even from that person?
Michael Morell: Sure. So, the vast majority of people in the organization, including those at the top, don’t know who the assets are.
Preet Bharara: That’s like sources in journalism that maybe even the Editor-in-chief for the paper does not know.
Michael Morell: Correct.
Preet Bharara: And that that’s for the protection of whom?
Michael Morell: The source. This is really interesting and important, I think. When somebody says, “Yes, I’m willing to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. I’m willing to work for the United States of America,” we make a commitment to them to keep them safe, because they’re putting their life at risk in many cases.
Preet Bharara: [crosstalk 00:27:26] guarantee.
Michael Morell: There’s no guarantees.
Preet Bharara: Right.
Michael Morell: There’s no guarantees. But we make a commitment to keep them safe, and that is of the highest priority right after them giving you the information that you think you need to keep as safe. And we take that really, really seriously.
Preet Bharara: And how do you make sure that … Because this happens in other contexts too. When a cooperating witness goes south in a criminal case, how much monitoring is there of an asset to make sure they’re not doing the double cross?
Michael Morell: There’s an entire job category at CIA. So you have your operations officers that do the recruitment and run the assets, right? Meet with them, ask them the questions, get the answer, give them whatever it is that you’ve agreed to give them. Right? That person runs the asset. There’s another job category called case management officer, and it’s their job to assess the reliability of the person. Are they being honest with you? Are they telling you everything they know? Are they holding some stuff back? And not only the reliability of the individual over time, but the credibility of the specific information they’re giving you. Reliability helps determine credibility, but it’s not 100%. Because people acquire information in different ways. Right? So, when somebody tells you something, you make them tell you how you got that. Looking at a document in a high level office, has a lot more credibility than hearing it from a person who heard it from a person who heard it from a person.
Michael Morell: So those case management officers are very, very important in making sure that whoever’s reading that intelligence understands both the reliability of the person over time, and the credibility of that specific information.
Preet Bharara: Does every asset have to go through certain hoops like a polygraph test? Or [crosstalk 00:29:11]?
Michael Morell: So they all go through a vetting process. Not all of them are polygraphed, but many of them are.
Preet Bharara: So you said there’s one thing that Americans won’t do in recruitment of assets, and that is use blackmail, derogatory information. Are there other things that we won’t do? In other words, are there certain kinds of people we would say are off limits if someone has killed somebody or someone has done some other kind of thing? Is there something that’s off limits?
Michael Morell: I give you two answers to that. One is, there are regulations about who you can use as an asset and who you can’t. There are regulations about what you can use as your cover, as you’re talking to these people, and what you can’t. We don’t use reporters as cover, because that would undermine all journalists, right? If people believe that CIA officers were pretending to be journalists. So, there’s a whole set of rules around those two issues. And then, there’s common sense and ethics that come into day to day decisions of people walking in the Deputy Director’s office or the acting Director’s office and saying, “Hey, we want to do this, this, and this,” and you say, “God, I really don’t feel so comfortable about that even though we’re allowed to do it. I don’t feel so comfortable about it. So we’re not going to do it that way.”
Preet Bharara: So, when an asset goes bad or you find stops being truthful, what happens to the asset?
Michael Morell: You-
Preet Bharara: They sleep with the fishes?
Michael Morell: No.
Preet Bharara: Okay. All right. Just want to get that off the table. Okay.
Michael Morell: We don’t do that either.
Preet Bharara: So you say Mr. Morell.
Michael Morell: Some of our competitors do that.
Preet Bharara: Yes.
Michael Morell: We do not do that.
Preet Bharara: Competitors, good word.
Michael Morell: We’ll fire that person, essentially. Right? We don’t have a relationship with them.
Preet Bharara: What happens to that person. Is that sometimes of grave personal danger to that person? Will it be more likely for it to be learned that that person had been a US asset or no?
Michael Morell: No. We’re not going to rat them out. Right? We’re not going to do that. And we still want them to live in a way where they can protect [crosstalk 00:31:01].
Preet Bharara: Can’t remember ever having a case like this, but it occurs to me as we’re talking about it. Could any of those people be prosecuted? Have they broken the law? And I’m guessing you don’t want that because then that undermines-
Michael Morell: So they’ve broken the law in their own country from day one.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Michael Morell: Right?
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Michael Morell: They haven’t broken any US law.
Preet Bharara: No US law, if they’re operating abroad.
Michael Morell: Right. Really important for people to understand that CIA can break the law of other countries, but we cannot break our own.
Preet Bharara: Right. I don’t know if everybody understands that. That the United States government through the agency and not just the agency, but other law enforcement agencies, because I know this from my time, can direct illegal conduct in other countries.
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Is that okay?
Michael Morell: Yes. Otherwise we would not be able to get the information we need to do our jobs. Now, at the end of the day, that’s an ethical decision, right? But every president has said, “Yes, I’m willing to do that.”
Preet Bharara: What’s the approval process for conducting unlawful activity in another country? Who has to say yes to that?
Michael Morell: It depends, and it depends on what the activity is, just simply to recruit another human being to spy for us, that approval is fairly low inside CIA. For a covert action … All right. For a CIA covert action that is approved by the president in writing, and gets briefed to Congress within 24 to 48 hours.
Preet Bharara: Every covert action.
Michael Morell: Every covert action.
Preet Bharara: How many covert actions are happening at any given time?
Michael Morell: A number.
Preet Bharara: A number.
Michael Morell: It’s not large, but it’s-
Preet Bharara: Otherwise it would be inundating a president.
Michael Morell: Yes. And a covert action, right, is different from intelligence. So what CIA does every day is collect intelligence largely through human beings, but sometimes through technical means, and it does analysis of that information to put it in context for the president, and his or her national security team. The other thing the CIA does is covert action, which is undertaking specific activities as authorized by the president, to actually change an outcome overseas, to degrade a terrorist group, to stop drugs flowing from into the United States, pursuing a certain foreign policy. Right? There isn’t a specific objective on a piece of paper. The president says, “I want to further this policy objective, and I’m giving the CIA the authority to do these activities.” That’s a covert action.
Preet Bharara: Right. Now. So you have an asset in the country, who’s breaking the law in that country, as is always the case. And that asset gets arrested by the local police in the other country, how do you fix that? Because you see in the movies what happens, but in real life, how do you fix that if you can?
Michael Morell: It’s very hard.
Preet Bharara: It’s very hard.
Michael Morell: It’s very hard.
Preet Bharara: And does the asset understand, and is it the policy that you don’t do anything to out it to protect that person from prison?
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: And they understand.
Michael Morell: You do whatever you can to protect that person, but they also understand the risks they’re undertaking. It’s not like you hide the risks from them.
Preet Bharara: But do you then worry that that person to save his own skin, will reveal that he is an asset?
Michael Morell: Maybe.
Preet Bharara: And, does that happen from time to time?
Michael Morell: Sure.
Preet Bharara: And there’s nothing to do about that?
Michael Morell: Nothing to do about that. It’s part of the cost of doing business.
Preet Bharara: And is there a distinction made between unlawful activities conducted in other countries between countries that are hostile to us, versus countries that are our close allies?
Michael Morell: So I don’t think so.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. Maybe there was that incident some years ago where it became known. I can’t remember, if it’s confirmed or not. The reporting was President Obama would have realtime information about things that Angela Merkel was either doing with her phone or otherwise. I can’t remember … This just reported … I don’t know if that was confronted or not, but that surprised a lot of people, that with friendly countries were doing that kind of thing. What do you say to people who were surprised by that?
Michael Morell: So I’m not going to confirm or deny that particular case. Right? And I’m not going to confirm or deny that we spy on any particular country or not. But let me ask you this. If you were the president-
Preet Bharara: I don’t have a problem with it.
Michael Morell: … and … I’m asking your listeners at the end of the day, right? If you were the president and an ally of the United States was having conversations with say, the supreme leader of Iran, and then was lying to you about what was said in those conversations, wouldn’t you want to know about it?
Preet Bharara: Sure. But to make the decision, of course. But the interesting presumption there is that allies of yours might engage in that kind of conduct that would be disappointing. Such that you have to have in place a policy, practice and capability of making sure that that’s not happening. You a little bit presuming something once you get to the hypothetical of the lie, right?
Michael Morell: Yeah. And there are those countries where you don’t spy on each other. So like the Five Eyes, right? The United Kingdom, Canada, US, New Zealand, Australia-
Preet Bharara: Why New Zealand? No offense to New Zealand.
Michael Morell: No offense to New Zealand.
Preet Bharara: I love New Zealand. I’ve never been there.
Michael Morell: I love New Zealand too. They don’t have the largest intelligence [crosstalk 00:35:44] on the planet.
Preet Bharara: But I remember when I was younger, and you hear about the Five Eyes, you’re thinking NATO powers. You’re not thinking necessarily New Zealand.
Michael Morell: Yeah. New Zealand … It’s obviously not a world power. I’m going to get a lot of angry mail from New Zealand.
Preet Bharara: We love New Zealand.
Michael Morell: But they’re part of this group. And what does it take to be in this group, right? It takes common interests, common national security interests. It takes policymakers who share what they’re thinking with policy makers and not holding back and not hiding. It takes intelligence services who are sharing information and not hiding, intelligence services who actually work with each other to pursue the information we’re looking for. So it really takes a special set of circumstances to get to the point where you say, “Hey, we’re not going to spy on you. You’re not going to spy on us.”
Preet Bharara: By the way, there’s a bit of nomenclature that I know rankles some people. Is it a CIA officer or a CIA agent?
Michael Morell: So if you’re an American and you work for CIA, you are a CIA officer.
Preet Bharara: People should get that straight.
Michael Morell: If you are a foreign national and you are working clandestinely for the CIA, you are an agent.
Preet Bharara: What, if anything, can the CIA do on American soil?
Michael Morell: Whatever we do on American soil, we work very closely with the FBI, and coordinate-
Preet Bharara: So, it’s not the case, just so as to be very clear, it’s not the case that the CIA can do nothing on American soil.
Michael Morell: Foreign nationals come into the United States, right?
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Michael Morell: For all sorts of reasons. And we can look at those people, reach out to those people. We just make sure we do it in coordination with the Bureau.
Preet Bharara: Always with the bureau.
Michael Morell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Preet Bharara: And who has to approve those things?
Michael Morell: Again, it’s done at a fairly low level.
Preet Bharara: The CIA has gotten in trouble, with the intelligence communities for getting things wrong. Also from time to time in our history, for maybe overreaching, and then the laws change and controls get changed. As we sit here today, explain how people, or why people should be comfortable with oversight of the agency. We we had to do secret stuff in law enforcement with the Bureau. The agency is multiple orders higher by its nature of necessity as you know, and I’ve heard you say and others say, to keep us safe, you have to do a lot of things in secret. Who else gets to know about it outside of the executive branch? How can we trust that everything’s under control?
Michael Morell: That’s a great question, and part of the answer is, this is going to sound strange coming from me, is I don’t want blind trust by the American people in the intelligence community. I think it’s healthy that the American people have some degree of mistrust. There’s a long history in our country, unfortunately, of the government abusing power. And so I think it’s actually healthy in a democracies for there to be some mistrust. And without some degree of mistrust we wouldn’t have the oversight that is in place to make sure that we live up to the law and our values. So, what does that oversight look like? There’s a significant amount of oversight in the executive branch, significant amount of oversight by the White House in CIA activities and operations, significant amount of oversight by the Department of Justice by the National Security Division, significant amount of oversight by the State Department to make sure that what we’re doing is consistent with the foreign policy goals of the United States-
Preet Bharara: Right. That’s all within the executive branch so far?
Michael Morell: That’s all the executive branch, right?
Preet Bharara: Then you have oversight of CIA operations, or some of them, by the Congress.
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: To whom, and in what circumstances do members of Congress find out about and are asked for their blessings with respect to CIA operations, if any?
Michael Morell: So they’re not asked for their blessing.
Preet Bharara: It’s just notification.
Michael Morell: It’s notification.
Preet Bharara: In no circumstance is Congress asked for its blessing? The reason I ask that question, because I’ve heard people say when you talk about covert programs or other things that the CIA does, the arguments made later when they become known and some people don’t like them, even though it’s just a notification to members of Congress, people like to say, “Well, they didn’t object. They gave it their blessing,” but it’s not the case that their permission was sought. Right?
Michael Morell: So you do seek their permission in one sense. The law says you have to notify, and you have to do that fully and concurrently. You can’t wait six months or a year to-
Preet Bharara: Concurrent [inaudible 00:40:02] taking of the action.
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: But does that mean a week before you’re going to do a big thing or as a drone is in the air, you let them know that it’s happening?
Michael Morell: It depends on, again, what you’re doing, right? But currently usually means in the immediate aftermath, not before, except when it comes to establishing a covert action. So, once the president signs a finding that says, “I’m creating this covert action and I’m asking the CIA to undertake these activities,” by law we have ours to notify the two intelligence committees, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee.
Preet Bharara: But only the chairs.
Michael Morell: No, no. The whole committee-
Preet Bharara: … gets advised that-
Michael Morell: Gets advised that the president has asked CIA to undertake this covert action. Right? That’s notification. Sometimes, that notification is limited to the chair in ranking of those committees, but when that happens, the rest of the committee has to be told, “Hey, the chairman in ranking have been told something that you haven’t been told.” That’s a fairly recent reform.
Preet Bharara: So do they say, “The chairman in ranking member have been told that project 614, about which we can tell you nothing is happening,” or do they get any detail at all? Are they told, “Well, this has something to do with Iran.”
Michael Morell: They got a lot of detail.
Preet Bharara: They do. The rest of the committee.
Michael Morell: They get a lot of detail. And my view is that the limitation to the chair in ranking should happen rarely, that the more people you brief, the better.
Preet Bharara: Aren’t you worried about leaks?
Michael Morell: [crosstalk 00:41:33] oversight. So, it was very interesting-
Preet Bharara: They leak in the Congress.
Michael Morell: Actually, in my experience in this town, many more leaks out of the executive branch than out of Congress.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. Well, on intelligence matters.
Michael Morell: On intelligence matters. Absolutely. So, I never worried about that. Now let’s go back to the question of notification or approval. So at the end of the day, Congress has the power of the purse. Congress has the power to say, “You can’t spend money on that.”
Preet Bharara: “This thing you want to do in Honduras, we’re going to take that power away from you.”
Michael Morell: “We are not going to let you spend money on that.” And so, they do have that power. So on a covert action, they can say no. Now, it takes both the authorizers, the intelligence committees, and the appropriators, the defense subcommittee and the appropriations committee-
Preet Bharara: Are the appropriators allowed to know that?
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: [crosstalk 00:42:19] for this purpose.
Michael Morell: For this purpose. For this purpose.
Preet Bharara: So, to be clear on each of the things that requires the president of the United States to sign off on covert action with respect to all of those things, there’s also some notification to Congress, those committees, or only some subset of those things.
Michael Morell: All of those things.
Preet Bharara: So they have equal access in some measure.
Michael Morell: Right. And, they get regular updates on exactly what you’re doing, and where, and what the effects are.
Preet Bharara: How regular?
Michael Morell: Once a month, usually.
Preet Bharara: How often … And you’ve done some of these briefings?
Michael Morell: Many times.
Preet Bharara: To the Congress.
Michael Morell: Many times.
Preet Bharara: How annoying is it?
Michael Morell: One thing I do not miss.
Preet Bharara: Be honest. Or is it … Is it a wonderful experience? Is it frustrating? Is it annoying? Is it edifying?
Michael Morell: I’ll say two things about it. One that will not surprise people and one that might. It’s terribly, terribly, terribly annoying, frustrating and even dangerous when it becomes political. When politics is allowed inside the room. The other thing I’d say is that in my experience, and if I was going to reform the intelligence oversight process, I would focus on this. Most of the interest of the members of the intelligence committees is what does CIA think analytically, about North Korean nuclear program or the Iranian nuclear program, or what are the Iranians up to right now in the Persian Gulf? They want to know what we think, because it makes them smarter among their colleagues. There’s a reason why chairman and ranking members are on the Sunday Show so often.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Michael Morell: Because they know more than other people. So, I’ve had many, many, many, many more experiences with Congress, just talking about what’s going on in the world than I have with them asking, “Hey, how are you guys doing on recruiting assets against this target?” Or, “How good are you guys at making analytic calls?” Right? So there’s less interest in what we’re doing as an agency and much more interest in the issues of the day.
Preet Bharara: So, if someone on one of these committees that’s getting notified, really doesn’t like it, what happens? Short of an appropriations removal, there’s nothing else they can do, right?
Michael Morell: They can write a letter to the president or-
Preet Bharara: Sometimes they write a note to file.
Michael Morell: The DNI to the Director of the agency and say, “I think this is inappropriate for the following reasons.” They can do that and they can say, “And we’re going to withhold funding because we feel so strongly about it.” That’s really all they can do.
Preet Bharara: How often does that happen?
Michael Morell: That happens occasionally to rarely, occasionally to rarely. And on covert action … Look, covert action is a policy decision. It’s not an intelligence decision. So, the president has made a decision, his or her national security team have made a decision. So oftentimes, when Congress is unhappy with a particular covert action, it’s the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense who’s going up with a Director or a Deputy Director of CIA to make the case for the covert action, because it’s a policy decision.
Preet Bharara: So, you spend a good amount of your time at the agency being a professional briefer, which is important stuff, including the briefing of the president of the United States.
Michael Morell: For a whole year.
Preet Bharara: Including doing the briefing for the presidential daily brief as they call it.
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: I want to ask about that in a minute, but many of my listeners will not know this. What were you doing on the morning of September 11th, 2001?
Michael Morell: I was with the president of the United States. So I was his briefer.
Preet Bharara: And you were in a school in Sarasota, Florida.
Michael Morell: From January 4th, 2001 to January 4th, 2002, I was his daily Briefer, six days a week, no matter where he was in the world. On that morning of September 11th, I briefed him in his hotel suite in Sarasota from 8:00 to 8:30, and then I went with a motorcade-
Preet Bharara: Right. The first plane hit sometime after 8:30.
Michael Morell: Sometime after 8:30 the first transponder went off, at I think, at 8:15.
Preet Bharara: Right. So you’re in the school, in the classroom, and we’ve all seen those images.
Michael Morell: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: When do you first understand that something has happened?
Michael Morell: I was in the motorcade going to the school. I was in the senior staff van with Karl Rove, and Ari Fleischer and others, and Ari’s phone rang. He was the president’s press secretary, and he turned around and he said to me, “Michael, do you know anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center?” And I said, “I haven’t, but I’ll make some calls.”
Preet Bharara: That kind of sucks. That he had to ask you.
Michael Morell: Exactly, exactly.
Preet Bharara: Your job was to know first, sir.
Michael Morell: Exactly.
Preet Bharara: Okay.
Michael Morell: We got to the school, I called the CIA operation center, and in my mind and the president would later tell people he thought the same thing. When somebody said to me, plane hitting the World Trade Center, I thought-
Preet Bharara: A small plane.
Michael Morell: Small plane, bad weather, et cetera. I called the CIA operation center, and they didn’t know much more than Ari knew, but they did tell me it was a large commercial jet, and boy, that doesn’t just happen.
Preet Bharara: No.
Michael Morell: So I spent the rest of the day with the president.
Preet Bharara: Well, once that is found out, what happens to the president? When something of that magnitude happens … I know it’s not you or maybe in consultation with people at the agency, does someone to make the decision, “We’ve got to do something to protect the president right now.”
Michael Morell: So after first plane hit, president went ahead and went into the classroom, and read from the book story about a goat, I think.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Michael Morell: The president went ahead with that. It was only when the second plane hit that there was now now no doubt at all about what this was. Right? And that’s when Andy Card went in, and whispered in his ear and said, “America’s under attack.” At that point, I knew there was no doubt what this was, and I was standing there in the classroom next to where the president was, where the rest of the White House staff was, and I was thinking, “Gosh, this has been on the president’s schedule, this place, this moment in time. This event has been on the president’s schedule for weeks. When is a plane going to fly into this building?” And I could tell by the look on the Secret Service guy’s face, that he thought the same thing.
Preet Bharara: Get the hell out. And then where did you go?
Michael Morell: So I went with the president on Air Force One, and I was with him the rest of the day.
Preet Bharara: On Air Force One, you have the ability to have secure communications with all the people you needed to, to find out what was going on. And at what moment did you think this was Al-Qaeda?
Michael Morell: So, I thought it was Al-Qaeda from the first moment. The first place we went was Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and we landed there and we kicked off the plane anybody who didn’t have anything to do with national security, and we took on a lot of water and we took on a lot of food because we had no idea how long we’d be flying around. On the flight from Barksdale off the Air Force Base where the president was going to do a secure video teleconference with his national security team, he asked to see me. And it was me, the president and Andy Card, and the president looked me in the eye and he said, “Michael, who did this?” And I had not seen any intelligence yet. And I said, “Mr President, I haven’t seen any intelligence that would take us to a perpetrator, so you’re going to get my best guess.” And he said, “I understand the caveat now get on with it.”
Michael Morell: And I said, “Mr President, there are two nation states, Iran and Iraq, with the capability to do this. But neither one of those has anything to gain, and both of them have everything to lose, so it’s not one of them.” I said, “Mr President, by the time we get to the end of the trail here, we’re going to find Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.” And I told him I would bet my kid’s future on that.
Preet Bharara: How familiar was Osama bin Laden to the president?
Michael Morell: He was very familiar.
Preet Bharara: From the PDBs?
Michael Morell: Yes. From the briefings he got prior to becoming president, when he became the Republican candidate for president, he got an intelligence briefing. A big chunk of it was terrorism. A big chunk of that was Al-Qaeda. And then from the PDBs that started as soon as he became president elect, when the Supreme Court made its famous ruling. He became president elect and we started briefing him everyday.
Preet Bharara: Right. Every other thing that was happening so that he wasn’t completely unknown to Osama bin Laden was the lead defendant, although he wasn’t there, in the trial in my courthouse.
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Southern district of New York for the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: Which case was brought in 1998.
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: So, he was recently on the minds of civilian people because of that, but not much before that.
Michael Morell: Yes. And in the spring and early summer of 2001, he was on the president’s mind almost every day, because we had significant intelligence about a coming attack, that it would be potentially catastrophic, that it would be simultaneous attacks, and that it would be a big victory for Al-Qaeda. But we didn’t have any information whatsoever on where, how, or when. And by the end of early summer, the intelligence dried up. We didn’t know it at the time, but what was happening was bin Laden in the spring of 2001, was going from training camp to training camp in Afghanistan and like any leader does, right, rallying his troops and he was telling people, “Really good news is coming. A great victory for us is coming,” and that’s what was leaking out. So the president was very, very familiar with Al-Qaeda when I said, “Mr President, this is Al-Qaeda.”
Preet Bharara: So you had some intelligence but you didn’t have the specifics necessary to prevent the attack?
Michael Morell: Correct.
Preet Bharara: In hindsight, now it’s been a lot of years and there have been commissions and lots of people look at this, and you remained at the agency for a long time-
Michael Morell: Yes.
Preet Bharara: … would you consider it to have been a massive intelligence failure? And if so, how large?
Michael Morell: So I consider it to have been a national failure, to include an intelligence failure. One of the interesting things is Vice President Gore chaired a commission on aviation safety, and there was a chapter in there on aviation security, and it worried about terrorists on aircraft, and it made a number of recommendations that were not implemented. And they weren’t implemented because the airline industry saw them as too much of both a financial burden, and a burden to passengers. Almost every one of those recommendations was implemented after 9/11. I don’t believe that President Clinton did enough after the embassy bombings, and after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen to undermine and degrade Al-Qaeda.
Michael Morell: So this is a national failure, this is a policy failure and it’s an intelligence failure, mostly in the following sense. The fundamental responsibility of the intelligence community is to penetrate our adversaries, to learn what they plan to do that’s going to hurt us. And after 9/11, we had Al-Qaeda so penetrated, that we were able, on a large number of occasions, to know about an attack that was coming so we could stop it, right? We CIA, and we NSA, did not have Al-Qaeda penetrated to the point prior to 9/11 that we saw that attack coming.
Preet Bharara: What’s the level of terrorist threat today, as compared to 2001, you think?
Michael Morell: Very, very different. The threat prior to 9/11 was terrorists from outside United States coming to the United States and attacking us here. All of the changes we made post 9/11 have made that extraordinarily difficult, and it hasn’t happened since 9/11. What’s changed is now terrorist groups outside the United States are radicalizing individuals inside the United States, some to the point of conducting attacks here. That’s the threat.
Preet Bharara: If an American citizen acting alone, is becoming radicalized on the internet, and is thinking about engaging in some hostile action against neighbors in Cleveland, Ohio, what role does the CIA, if any have-
Michael Morell: None.
Preet Bharara: None. Is that bad?
Michael Morell: I don’t think so. The FBI can do that, right, with the right authority.
Preet Bharara: Because everything is contained here.
Michael Morell: Everything’s contained here. I wouldn’t want, from a civil liberties and privacy perspective, for the CIA to have that authority.
Preet Bharara: There’s been a recent event in America that I think you’ve referred to as an intelligence failure, and that is the Russian hacking of the 2016 election interference thereof. We are recording this the day after the former special counsel Bob Mueller testified before two committees, how big an intelligence failure was the Russian hacking of the election?
Michael Morell: So I believe it was significant, but I have to parse this for you. Okay? Because I think it’s important to parse. The Russians did essentially three different attacks. The first attack was to use cyber espionage to steal information from the DNC, from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and to provide to WikiLeaks embarrassing information that was then disseminated by WikiLeaks and other platforms like WikiLeaks. The intelligence community saw that, pretty much in real time, and told policymakers about it. The second thing the Russians did, was they tried to access the voting systems of state and local governments with, I believe, the intent to play around with those systems if they could get inside. They failed in almost every case to do that, but they tried to do that. The intelligence community saw that, in almost real time and warned the policymakers about it. So, they did their job.
Michael Morell: There was a third thing as you know, that the Russians did, which was to weaponize social media, right, to use our social media to both use true news and fake news, but anything they could to divide us as a people, to create chaos, to hurt Hillary Clinton and to help Donald Trump. That use of social media, that weaponization of social media began as early as 2012, was significantly up and running by 2013, was full bore by 2014, 2015 and it wasn’t until late 2016 and even into 2017, that the intelligence community really got a handle on what was going on. And had we identified it much earlier say in 2012, 2013, that the Russians were going to conduct this kind of an attack on the United States, had the president known that, he could have had more options than he ended up having in the summer of 2016.
Preet Bharara: The agency gets this information and as we’ve discussed, one of the things the agency does is covert action, another thing they do is analytics. They collect information. There’s also something known as a counterintelligence investigation. What is that, and how is that different from the other things that the agency does?
Michael Morell: So, a counterintelligence investigation is when you are conducting investigation usually into people, but sometimes activities, who you believe are spying on us, who you believe are trying to acquire American secrets, who you believe are trying to inappropriately influence the American government.
Preet Bharara: And these activities that you’ve described relating to the election, qualified?
Michael Morell: Yes, absolutely.
Preet Bharara: And so it was right to open up a counterintelligence investigation?
Michael Morell: And so I don’t know whether it was right or not because I don’t have all the information that was available. But what I read in the media, absolutely right to open up a counterintelligence investigation.
Preet Bharara: And then, at what point does a counterintelligence investigation turn into, or split off into a criminal investigation by the FBI?
Michael Morell: Actually, I should ask you that. I should ask you that question. So these investigations are largely done by the FBI with the support of the intelligence community. They’re not done by the intelligence community themselves.
Preet Bharara: So that’s what began this whole business that ultimately led to the appointment of Bob Mueller, who I know, you know well, I know well, we’re sitting here just a day after his testimony. What are your one or two takeaways from what happened yesterday?
Michael Morell: So they’re wrapped up in my takeaways from his report, and as you and I have talked in the past, I’m a Volume 1 guy, right?
Preet Bharara: Which is the geekiest thing someone can say. I’m a Volume 2 guy.
Michael Morell: You’re a Volume 2 guy, I’m a Volume 1 guy, right? So Volume 1 is about the Russian attack on the United States, and what struck me about Volume 1 was that Bob Mueller and his investigators came to exactly the same conclusions that the intelligence community did in the fall of 2016. That the Russians were attacking us with the intent of creating chaos, undermining our democracy, damaging Hillary Clinton should she become president and trying to help Donald Trump become president. Bob Mueller came to exactly those conclusions, and he reiterated that yesterday. I think that’s extraordinarily important.
Preet Bharara: What else?
Michael Morell: I think the other thing that struck me yesterday from a Volume 1 perspective, is that he made it very clear, and we know this from a variety of individuals, including the DNI, public testimony, that we are still under attack, as the Russians never stopped. That it continues to this very day number one, but that the Russians have now been joined by other countries, who are doing exactly the same-
Preet Bharara: Who want to get in on the action.
Michael Morell: Who want to get in on the action.
Preet Bharara: And Bob Mueller said that, and he also said that we need swift action. What would that action be?
Michael Morell: So I think there’s two sets of things that need to be done. So, I’m an international relations foreign policy guy, and in international relations and foreign policy, you talk about deterrence, right? How do you deter a foreign adversary from taking action that undermines you? There’s always two pieces to it. One is to defend yourself, and make it more difficult for the foreign adversary to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish. And to the extent that you can make it more difficult, maybe they’ll stop. So there’s a whole set of things that we need to do as a nation to protect ourselves from these attacks, and there is bipartisan legislation … And some of this was discussed yesterday, there is bipartisan legislation on the Hill to do a number of things to protect our election system, to make it more difficult for foreign governments or foreigners to look like Americans on social media, that are sitting on the Hill because of the politics of this. So that’s one piece.
Michael Morell: The other piece of deterrence is imposing costs on the adversary, and we have not imposed enough costs on Vladimir Putin to the point that he stops.
Preet Bharara: And that means what, sanctions?
Michael Morell: So, I think for me it means broad sanctions. When we sanction just the individuals involved, just the guys at the Internet research agency or just Russian intelligence officers, they wear that as a badge, right? And they’re never going to face an American courtroom. They’re never going to face an American jail. So, I don’t think that’s enough. I think you have to put broad based sanctions that actually hurt the Russian economy, and hurt the Russian middle class, and put pressure on Vladimir Putin.
Preet Bharara: What is the appropriate response for a campaign official in any election, we’re talking about 2020, if that campaign official received some outreach from someone they have reasonable belief is from a foreign country with dirt on an opponent, what do they do that day?
Michael Morell: So this is another easy question.
Preet Bharara: I would think it’s an easy question, and the reason I ask is I keep trying to hear members of the current administration answer it forthrightly and honestly, I guess in a way that won’t piss off the current president, some of who’s allies keep saying, “Yeah, you’d take the information. It’s a campaign. That’s what you do. Not drawing a distinction between some local politician in some state in America versus a foreign power with whom we are hostile.” So what’s the easy answer?
Michael Morell: You call the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Preet Bharara: You don’t call the CIA.
Michael Morell: You don’t call the CIA.
Preet Bharara: You call the Federal Bureau.
Michael Morell: You can’t even find CIA’s phone number anywhere.
Preet Bharara: One thing we didn’t talk about was, I’ve met station chiefs from time to time. I think I can say that. It’s kind of hilarious, they hand you their business card. You’ll go to an event and you’ll get the business card of … Tell me if I shouldn’t say this, okay? And you’d get the business card of the head of the FBI, or if you’re in a foreign country the legal attache from the DEA or whatever, and then some guy will give you a card and it just has a name on it. That was the station chief.
Michael Morell: Yes. So it’s not easy to find the CIA, so call the FBI.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. All right. Their number is listed.
Michael Morell: Now, to be fair I’ll say that foreign government officials show up and talk to campaigns. They want to find out what your views are on the world, and-
Preet Bharara: Nothing wrong with it.
Michael Morell: Nothing wrong with that, right? When they start talking about influencing the current government, or influencing an election, or offering you assistance in an election is when you should call the FBI because those things are illegal.
Preet Bharara: Is WikiLeaks a hostile intelligence service?
Michael Morell: Yes. It’s not a journalistic organization. And boy, I’ve had this discussion with journalists. WikiLeaks takes everything that it gets and it posts all of it. The Washington Post and the New York Times had everything that Edward Snowden stole from the US government. They did not publish all of it. They went through it very carefully.
Preet Bharara: But, is that a distinction? Because they exercise some more discretion?
Michael Morell: That’s one distinction.
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Michael Morell: The other distinction is that WikiLeaks actually targets individuals for recruitment to steal information, and WikiLeaks actually helps people figure out how to steal that information. There is no editor that I know of, the Washington Post and the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, who would allow their journalists to do that.
Preet Bharara: Well, I’m agreeing with you, but I just want to clarify a little bit that they do have their writers recruit sources, and they do determine, “Well, there’s this particular family that we think is involved in crime, or we think there’s a particular campaign that rumor has it may be engaged in this, that or the other.” So, they have a target in mind, a company or a tobacco industry for example. They try to recruit folks who might bring them inside information that’s sensitive to that company. How’s that different?
Michael Morell: But they wouldn’t, same, but they wouldn’t say to an individual, “We want you to go get a job at CIA so you can feed us information,” they wouldn’t do that. And they wouldn’t help figure out technically, how to steal information from a IC computer.
Preet Bharara: Do you worry that there’ll be other things like WikiLeaks that are foreign intelligence services, but not associated with a particular country? Sort of like an analog to Al-Qaeda or something else?
Michael Morell: Sure, it’s where we kind of are with cyber, right?
Preet Bharara: Yeah.
Michael Morell: As you know, cyber crime is a huge issue, right? Bigger than cyber espionage in some ways. And so all of these technological breakthroughs are allowing non state actors to do things that they were never allowed to do before, or never could do before.
Preet Bharara: When America is attacked through the cyber realm, as you know, cases we brought in other histories, officers brought and I know you folks are focused on, and it’s very difficult to talk about this, and we tried. What is the propriety of the US government retaliating? Disproportionate cyber attack in the other direction.
Michael Morell: It’s a tool and it should be seen as a tool that can be used. I think you have to use it very carefully. It seems based on what I’ve read, that we used it during the mid terms, and we reached out to the Internet Research Agency and the days around the election, and we made sure that they couldn’t do their job around the election. That seems to me to be an appropriate use of that tool. I think you have to think about the downside, and the downside is that when we use cyber as an attack tool, even to defend ourselves, we’re sending a signal into the rest of the world that it’s okay to do that. We’re setting a precedent, and the United States is the most vulnerable country in the world to cyber attacks. We are the ones who live in the biggest glass house. So we got to be careful from that perspective.
Preet Bharara: Right. North Korea barely has computing power.
Michael Morell: Exactly. Exactly.
Preet Bharara: People forget that, they developing nukes, but barely has computing power. [inaudible 01:06:22] done a lot of things in the agency and, and now you look at it from some remove and over the course of your life, you’ve I’m sure, thought about all sorts of issues relating to this concept, which is a complex one. How do you define justice?
Michael Morell: This is a question I’m going to ask you.
Preet Bharara: Oh. I can talk to you from 6:00 to 7:00. This is a testament to how interesting this is. Mike Morell, thanks for being on the show.
Michael Morell: Welcome. Great to see you.