Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Michael Morell, Former Acting Director of the CIA.

AuthorCruickshank, Paul

CTC: On September 11, 2001, you were President Bush's CIA briefer and would later serve as the deputy and acting director of the CIA. Can you talk us through how that day, 9/11, was for you? The sense of purpose it created in you and your colleagues, and the ways you were able to contribute to the counterterrorism mission in the months and years that followed? And when you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are some of the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? What are your most memorable highs and lows?

Morell: I was with President Bush on 9/11. I was his daily intelligence briefer for one year, from January 4th, 2001, to January 4th, 2002. Briefed him six days a week, every morning, no matter where he was in the world--Oval Office, Camp David, his ranch in Texas, traveling domestically or internationally. So that put me on Air Force One on September 10th when it went wheels up for what was a political trip to Florida. I briefed him that morning [of September 11, 2001] from 8:00 to 8:30. Contrary to some speculation that you'll see from time to time on the internet, there was nothing in that briefing at all with regard to al-Qa'ida or an attack or to terrorism in any way. Most of the briefing that day was about the Second Intifada between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

It was during that briefing, of course--and we didn't know it at the time--that the first transponder on one of the four flights was turned off. Obviously, we had no idea that that was happening. When the briefing was over at 8:30, we went down to the motorcade and drove to the school, [the Emma E. Booker Elementary School], where the president was going to do one of these events. And it was during that drive that the first plane hit the first tower, and it was right after we got there that the second plane hit the second tower. When the first plane hit, everybody's assumption, including mine, was that [it] must be bad weather in New York, must be a small plane, must be an accident. But that view of the world started to unravel when we heard that the first plane was a large commercial jet. And then obviously when the second plane hit, you knew this was terrorism. And I knew instantly that this was al-Qa'ida, and this was bin Ladin.

The rest of that day for me was a mixture of the intensity of doing my job with the surreal. An example of the intensity of doing my job is [that as] we were flying from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana--where Air Force One had landed to take on food and water, and to kick a lot of people off the plane because we didn't know how long we'd be flying around--to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, the president asked to see me, alone. So, it was the president, it was his Chief of Staff Andy Card, and it was me in his small office on Air Force One. [The] president looked me in the eye, and he said, "Michael, who did this?"

And I told him that I had not seen any intelligence that would take us to a perpetrator, but I'd be happy to give him my best assessment, and he said, "I understand the caveat. Now, move on." It's very much of a George Bush thing to say.

So I told him that there were two state sponsors of terrorism, Iran and Iraq, that had the capability to do this, but that in my view, neither one of them had anything to gain and both of them had everything to lose from doing something like this. And so I said I did not believe it was one of those countries. I said, "I believe when we get to the end of the trail, Mr. President, we're going to find al-Qa'ida, and we're going to find bin Ladin." And I told him that I was so confident of that that I would bet my children's future on it.

He then looked me in the eye again, and he said, "When will we know?" which is kind of a question you get from a president for which there is no answer obviously. So I fell back on what analysts are trained to do, which is to provide context. So I thought back about a handful of terrorist attacks on the United States previously and how long it took us to find out. So I told him the East African embassy bombings, it took us two to three days to figure out that it was al-Qa'ida. The bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, I told them it took us several months to link that back to al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan. And then I told him the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, it took us a full year to link that to Saudi Hezbollah and back to Tehran and the Iranians. So when you put all that context together, I told him, "Mr. President, we may know soon, and then again, it may take some time."

Later that evening, when we were flying back to Andrews Air Force Base, the CIA sent me a piece of intelligence that had been provided to us by a West European intelligence service. And its message was quite frankly stunning, and George Tenet, then the director of Central Intelligence, wanted me to show it to the president. You couldn't tell from the piece of intelligence what its sourcing was, so you couldn't give it any credibility, but what it said was the attack that day was the first of two waves of attacks on the United States. So here I was, sitting with the president of the United States who had just suffered the worst attack in the history of our country, and here was his intelligence briefer telling him that this was going to happen again.

So that's two examples of the intensity of doing my job that day. An example of the surreal: as we were landing at Andrews Air Force Base that night, the president's military aide, the carrier of the 'nuclear football,' was looking outside the windows on the left side of the aircraft. He saw me looking at him--we had become friends over the previous nine months--and he waved me over to the windows, and I went over and he said, "Look out." I looked out, and there was an F-16 on the wingtip. He told me that that was from the D.C. Air National Guard, that it was an F-16, and that there was another one on the other wing tip. That plane, that F-16 was so close that you could see the pilot, you could see...

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