“I’m disappointed for the country”: An Interview with Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell

 /  Nov. 20, 2016, 6:22 p.m.


Michael Morell, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has dedicated his career to the US fight against terrorism. Currently, he is a fall fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and a senior counselor for Beacon Global Strategies LLC, a DC-based strategic advisory firm. During his thirty-three-year career at the CIA, Morell served as deputy director, director of intelligence, and executive director, and delivered the president’s daily brief to President George W. Bush. On November 9, one day after the 2016 presidential election, Morell sat down with the Gate to discuss the new president-elect and the future of US national security.

The Gate: In your New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton this summer, you expressed that members of the intelligence community “would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” Would you consider President-elect Donald Trump an active national security threat to the United States?

Michael Morell: I think there is a difference between a candidate, a president-elect, and a president. A candidate only worries about one thinggetting votes to win. Candidates will say and do pretty much anything to get votes, and they are not thinking about the responsibilities of the job of being president at all. When you become president-elect, you start thinking about those [responsibilities], and you start thinking about who is going to help you deal with those, and what kind of decisions you are going to make, so you get a little more serious. But it’s only when you raise your right hand and take the oath of office that the full weight of those responsibilities hits your shoulders. And on national security, the full weight of those responsibilities is realizing that you are responsible for the national security of the United States of America. And so there is a sobering processsomebody moves from candidate to president-elect to presidentand a seriousness of focus. I hope he goes through that. I have my concerns, and he has a little more distance to travel than most, but I hope he goes through that process, right? I couldn’t agree more with President Obama that we all have to want this guy to be successful, and we should all do whatever we can to help him be successful.

Gate: To clarify, would you say that Donald Trump, as a candidate, was a national security threat in some ways, but as a president-elect and moving forward as president, that threat will not continue in the same way as it did during the campaign process?

Morell: What I was concerned about in the op-ed that I wrote was his temperament. The question becomes: will this sobering process and will the decisions he makes about who he surrounds himself with on national security mitigate those temperament issues that I was concerned about? I really hope that the sobering process does that, and I really hope that he reaches out to those Republican national security folks who might not have endorsed Clinton, but kept their distance from him. That he reaches out to those very serious people and brings those people in to advise him, and that he listens to them. And then I think we are going to be OK. If neither one of those things happens, then I will still be concerned, but we’ll leave it at that.

Gate: Considering the people that Donald Trump is going to surround himself with and given your experience in the CIA, what advice do you have for Trump’s incoming national security advisors?

Morell: Watching President-elect Trump, their biggest challenge is going to be to get him to listen and to get him to focus on what they have to say, and to get him to give them the time that it takes to explain and understand these incredibly complex issues. I know a number of themI’m not going to talk specifics here—I know a number of them, and they are incredibly capable people. If anybody could have the chance to achieve those three things I talked aboutlisten, focus, timethey would be able to do it. I’m rooting for this guy to be an effective commander-in-chief, and who he chooses to surround himself with on national security will be an early test of that sobering process.

Gate: You have said that this campaign was particularly unique in that it was the first time we as the American public knew of the fact that a foreign power played a role in influencing the American elections. Moving forward, could you speak more about Russian influence in American politics and Russia as a national security threat to the United States?

Morell: Here’s what I’d say, I think what I’ve said here is that this is the first time in American history that the United States government has publicly accused another government of trying to interfere in our election. And what I’ve said here, is that that is a big deal. This is an attack, not a military attack of course, but this is an attack on the heart of our democracy. This is a big deal. It requires, demands, a US response. If the Obama administration doesn’t make that response, then the Trump administration is going to need to figure out what that response is. And that’s going to be interesting given the love-affairthat’s really not too strong a wordbetween these two guys [Trump and Putin] during the campaign—but hopefully that sobering process is going to change that. But if the Obama administration doesn’t get around to it, one of the early decisions that need to be made is: what do we do about what they did? Because it can’t pass cost-free. Letting it pass cost-free sends a signal, not only to Russia, but to a bunch of other countries in the world, that it’s OK to do this. So you have to respond, not only on Russian interference in the election, but on the bigger issue of Russian misbehavior. This is just the latest in a string of Russian behaviors that show that the United States has to put a policy together to contain Mr. Putin. This is going to be a really early test for President Trump.

Gate: As of now, have there not been any responsesno public responses that we know ofto the Russian cyber attacks?

Morell: Yes, correct. No public responses. And you really need a public response. It has zero deterrence effect on other countries for a response to be made and not seen by anybody. The Chinese are watching this, the North Koreans are watching this, the Iranians are watching this. And if the response can’t be seen, you lose half of what you’re trying to achieve.

Gate: With the election of Donald Trump and the general rhetoric of his campaign, in which he suggested that our alliances should become more transactional rather than strategic, how would this shift impact the US intelligence community moving forward?

Morell: It really wouldn’t impact the US intelligence communityit would impact the nation.

Gate: Is there any way that his rhetoric about alliances would impact the inter-intelligence agency partnerships?

Morell: Nointelligence relationships are below the radar. They continue, they stay healthy no matter what’s going on in the politics, so no, it wouldn’t. It would have a huge impact on what we try to do in the world, who is going to be willing to help us and who is not, and the power we can project in the world. Our alliance system is one of the ways we project power, so it’s incredibly important. Let’s hope that that’s one of the things that he gives second thought tobecause you shouldn’t think about them in “who’s paying the bill” terms, you should think about them in terms of what value they bring to the country. So hopefully that is something that will get rethought given the sobering process and the right set of advisors.

Gate: Under the Trump administration, do you see China transitioning from a US national security challenge to more of a national security threat?

Morell: No, not necessarily. I don’t see China as a threat today. You know, China is a national security challenge, not a threat. Whether it becomes a challenge will depend on what multiple presidents and multiple leaders of China do over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years. It’s a relationship where there is a broad range of possible outcomes, and one president is not going to define the direction it goes. I hope that the Trump administration continues to do what the Obama administration did, which is to try to make sure that where the relationship ends up is more toward the cooperation end of the spectrum, rather than the confrontation end of the spectrum. The only thing that Trump has talked about, in terms of China, is renegotiating trade deals. That’s it! If you’re China, you’re probably pretty nervous about that, but then again, they’re pretty smart and they probably don’t know, “What does that mean?” I don’t know what that means. Maybe the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead for now? And that is a bad thing economically for the United States, and it’s a bad thing strategically for the United States because it drives the countries of the region toward China and away from us. I think there are things that Trump has promised his constituents that he will feel he has to deliver on. I would think that renegotiating trade deals, whatever that means, is something that he thinks he has to deliver on. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. Whereas, I think the comment on allies and “who pays the bill,” I think his constituents care an iota about that, so I think that’s one that could slip a little bit. We’ll see what the trade thing looks like, but it’s an absolute certainty, in my mind, that open markets and free trade have significantly benefited the United States. I hope that he doesn’t unravel much of what has been put together since World War II.

Gate: Regardless of who is in the White House, do you think that America’s allies could be doing more to help in the national security arena?

Morell: I think that America’s allies do a tremendous amount for our security. Are there specific ones where I’d say, “Hey, I’d like you to do a little more here, a little more there”? Sure. Would our allies say to us, “We’d like you to do a little more here and there”? Yes, absolutely. But do I think we benefit from the current status quo? Without a doubt. Without a doubt in my mind.

Gate: So in terms of Trump’s platform that he presented to us in the campaign process, are there any other foreign policy points you think he will try to act on or push forward, other than renegotiating trade deals?

Morell: So, the foreign policy things that I saw in the campaign were: Russia. Deeply troubling, right? Hopefully Trump learns what Russia is all about, what Russia is trying to achieve, and that Russia tries to undermine the United States of America at every turn. So that was one. Two is the allies and peace. Hopefully he learns, and hopefully that and the Russian thing are not particularly important to any part of his constituency. The trade thing is something I find worrisome and is something I think he needs to deliver on. Immigration too, which most people see as a domestic issue but which has become a foreign policy issue because of how he has chosen to talk about immigrants and how he has chosen to talk about people who aren’t white. And you can certainly be tough on illegal immigration and not demean people, and not demean entire ethnicities and races. And you can be tough on terrorism without demeaning Muslims. So, it has become a foreign policy issue because of the way he talked about immigration. Hopefully that tone gets changed as he takes on the mantle of responsibility of representing his country in the world. It’s one of his jobs.

And then maybe the one that worries me the most, which people haven’t really talked about that much, is his gut on national security, which is reflected in the allies issuethat engagement in the world is not necessarily a healthy thing for the United States, that we should be spending our time focusing on our problems at home, and we should stop trying to fix things in the world. Barack Obama has a little bit of that mindset, and I believe Donald Trump has even more of the mindset. And I’m one of these people who believes that without US leadership in the world, what you end up with are vacuums that end up getting filled, most often by our adversaries. And so that’s the one I worry most about because that appears to be part of his worldview. What’s interesting is it’s completely inconsistent with the national security thinking in his party. So if Trump surrounds himself with traditional Republican national security thinkers, he is going to hear just the opposite from themhe’s going to hear from them about US engagement in the world and US leadership in the world. So those are the foreign policy things that came up in the campaign.

Gate: Can you comment on his statement about “bombing the hell out of ISIS”?

Morell: We will see what he does with ISIS. He may go the other way, he may say, as long as they are over there, as long as they ain’t coming here, if they come here I’ll bomb the hell out of them, but if they ain’t coming over here I’m not going to do that. And not worry about what that means for the stability of the region and what that means for threats to US interests overseas and threats to our allies and partners, etc. ISIS cuts both ways, right? And obviously some of the things he said about killing their families and torturing people are just illegal. His White House Counsel is going to tell him that’s illegal. There is going to be a lot of learning that happens here.

Gate: How do you feel right now about the election results, especially as a Hillary Clinton supporter?

Morell: I am disappointed, to say the least. And I am not disappointed for her, or for me, or for her supporters. I am disappointed for the country. I really believe that the country would be better off with Hillary Clinton as president. And the country is not going to have that opportunity. Now at the same time, had she won, there would have been an expectation on my part that the people who supported Trump would have at least been open to hearing an offer by her to bring them under the tent, an offer by her to be their president too. And so I think that Hillary Clinton supporters like myself need to be open to hearing an offer by him of how he is going to be a president for all of us, and how he is going to resolve some of these deep concerns that we have just been talking about. We owe him that. And on top of it, we owe him at the end of the day what President Obama said this morning, which is that we owe him our best wishes for success.

Gate: In your New York Times piece, you also indicated that you would not only vote for Hillary Clinton on November 8, but that you would “do everything [you could] to ensure that she is elected as our 45th president.” Do you think you did enough? Or is there anything you wish you could’ve done differently?

Morell: Sure, there is probably a long list of things I could rattle off for you, but I happen to be someone who is incredibly self-critical. I have been rolling that over in my mind for the last twelve hours. I am not going to go into specifics because they are actually kind of boring. But yeah, absolutely I could have done more. We all could have … You know, I do think that people who live on the coasts, people who live in elite environments like this really don’t understand what’s going on in the rest of our country. And we’d better figure that out pretty quickly.

It’s interesting, manufacturing output in the United States has never been higher than it is today. You would never know that by listening to the rhetoric. But that manufacturing output that’s never been higher, is being done with one-third the workers that were at their peak in manufacturing, because people have been replaced by technology. We are going through the most significant change in how work gets done in the history of the world, and people are getting left behind by that. For white males, probably for all males, the job you do is a huge source of your pride and defines who you are. And when these folks lose their jobs, it is not that they just lost their jobsit’s that they just lost their pride. And they are frustrated and angry and want to lash out, and that’s a big chunk of what’s going on here.

Gate: So were you surprised by the results?

Morell: I wasn’t surprised.

Gate: Why?

Morell: I wasn’t surprised because I’m an economist, I’m a math person, I’m a stats person. I’m a big follower of Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight, so I understand that there’s a probability distribution on outcomes. The most likely outcome was that Clinton would win by about three percentage points. But there was a smaller probability that she would win by a smaller margin, and there was an equally smaller probability that Trump would win. You know, her being ahead by only three percentage points in the polls was within the margin of error, so that’s why I wasn’t surprised when he ended up winning. You know, my wife was like, “Why aren’t you more upset, why aren’t you more surprised? You don’t seem to be surprised here.” It’s because I grew up taking statistics class after statistics class. We don’t know yet whether polling is complete screwed up or whether polling needs to be completely revolutionized or if this was just in the margin of error. There’s a lot of work to be done on that front.

Gate: Finally, this is the first time in a long time that you have been publicly able to endorse a candidate, given your government service. On that front, do you see yourself rejoining the intelligence community at any point in the future?

Morell: Not for the next four years [laughter]. I think that it is a fair question. I think that you have to know when to leave the playing field. There are incredibly talented people behind everybody. And those people need to be given the room to serve their country and serve their country at a high level. The people I know in the intelligence community are incredibly capable. So given the timeframe here of four years or eight years, I think it might be best to think about doing something else rather than hoping for going back to government.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Asya Akca & Kirk Lancaster


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