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Michael Morell is a non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Prior to joining the Center in September 2013, he served 33 years with the Central Intelligence Agency, the last three-and-a-half as Deputy Director, a position from which he ran the day-to-day operations of the Agency. Within the CIA, Morell also served as the Director for Intelligence, Executive Director, and twice as Acting Director. Currently, he is a member of President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology.
Michael Morell spent the first 17 years of his career at the Central Intelligence Agency quietly analyzing the economies of countries in East Asia. Then he suddenly found himself in the fury of the counter-terrorism storm.
This occurred when Morell became executive assistant to then CIA Director George Tenet in 2008 and later the daily CIA briefer to then President George W. Bush in 2001. He briefed Bush in August 2001 on the now famous President’s Daily Brief titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.,” and he was with Bush on Sept. 11, 2001.
Morell became head of the Directorate for Intelligence in 2008, and then deputy director of the CIA in 2010. He was with President Obama in May 2011 during the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He twice served as acting CIA director.
As soon as Morell retired after a 33-year CIA career last August, he became a non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.
Morell says a top priority now is to think about lessons learned during the 15 years he spent in the behind-the-scenes struggle against international terrorism. He is writing a book that will outline these lessons and explore what he calls the “touch points” he has personally had with the fight against Al Qaeda.
Michael Morell is hardly a household name in the United States, and he says that he has always preferred it that way. Despite his prominence in American intelligence, Morell merits only a half-page entry in Wikipedia. But now he is trying to get used to life in the spotlight. He is speaking publicly, and he has become a national security correspondent for CBS News. He was a prominent member of President Obama’s panel that investigated the National Security Agency leaks by contractor Edward Snowden.
Soft-spoken and slender, Morell brings a surprising sense of humility to his thinking about intelligence. Some of that comes from hard experience.
“Intelligence is all about reducing uncertainty for decision makers on national security and foreign policy,” Morell said. “That’s what the objective of the business is. If you do it well, you reduce that uncertainty, but you cannot eliminate it.” He added, “You realize, after having been in this business for a long time, that the picture you’ve painted of a particular situation is probably not complete and probably not 100 percent right.”
Morell added, “Then it is still harder to ask, “Okay, where are we going? What is this issue going to look like a year from now or two years from now? So now you’ve just multiplied the uncertainty tremendously.”
Morell described several developments in the work of CIA analysts in recent decades that sought to make the analysis more relevant.
One major transformation followed the CIA’s failure to provide accurate intelligence on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003. Morell said the key lesson was that analysts not only needed to provide judgments to policymakers on key issues but that they also needed to offer “confidence levels” for those judgments.
Analysts now routinely provide confidence levels of low, medium, or high, along with their judgments.
“The old approach was to come to your judgment and then make the best case you could for that judgment, so you in essence become a prosecuting attorney for the case you’ve made,” Morell said, “as opposed to when you are forced to think about the confidence level, you come at it in a more balanced way.”
Morell is now testing many of the premises in his forthcoming book with faculty, fellows, and students during his visits to the Belfer Center. He meets individually with students, offers seminars, and debates issues such as Syria, Iran, and the future of NSA collection.
Morell said that while he was in the CIA, he frequently met with Belfer Center Director Graham Allison. “I always, always, always, walked away from conversations with Graham with a better understanding of the world.”
Morell said that when Allison offered the senior fellowship, “I didn’t hesitate in saying yes because I knew the value of what I got out of conversations with Graham, and I figured there were a lot of people at the Center like him. This is a great place to test and sharpen your ideas and a great place to give back to young people who want to serve their country.”
“And it is intellectually stimulating,” he added. “In this post-CIA life, I do many things, and I’ll tell you, nothing comes close to how intellectually stimulating this is.”
Former Deputy CIA Director and Belfer Center Senior Fellow Michael Morell (left) responds to a point by Joseph Nye, Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor, during Morell’s presentation to the Belfer Center Board of Directors on intelligence issues.
“Intelligence is all about reducing uncertainty for decision makers on national security and foreign policy.”