By Cameron Mellin
The STU-III secure telephone was stashed under his son’s crib, the phone a direct line to the CIA, and its ring (often occurring in the midst of the night) meant it was time for 33-year agency veteran Michael Morell to get to work.
Rummaging through a pile of laundry to answer the call, Morell received classified intelligence the only way the agency operates: at a 24/7 clip, with no breaks to be had and no easy days. Yet for Morrell, a man who twice served as acting director of the CIA and as former President George W. Bush’s intelligence briefer and personal liaison, few days of his career have ever been easy—in fact, quite the opposite because the CIA is not your run-of-the-mill workplace, nor is Morell’s book, “The Great War of Our Time,” your average read.
His years at the agency, including the trials and tribulations of the intelligence world post-9/11 and the dangers we face, are documented with candor and a perspective only a handful of individuals possess.
Morell’s experiences are on the front lines of recent history, and his actions and leadership have come to define it. Years of carrying such a burden have stuck with Morell, whose unshakeable obligation to the public’s well-being drove him to pen his debut book. “Senior officials have a responsibility to provide perspectives to the public,” he says. “It is an important part of democracy, of the framing of history.”
Acknowledging this daunting reality and blocking out the criticism that comes along with the job is one of the agency’s cornerstones to success. “CIA, historically, has found itself as the meat of the sandwich in policy and political debates, [with] the agency often stuck in the middle,” he says. It is no different within the pages of his book; the agency and its actions are the focal point of many a chapter. However the perspective we receive, one uncensored by the media, is entirely fresh. Morell himself raises questions and doles out constructive criticisms of agency operations deemed “ineffectual,” (including the Iraq WMD debacle) and cites what went wrong, why it did and how to fix it moving forward.
Yet the author’s aspirations for the book were much simpler. “The most important chapter of this book is the last chapter, [which details] the dedication and commitment of those who work at CIA,” he says. Morell himself never wavered from this dedication, despite the political blowback that came with combating the threat of Al-Qaida with aggressive action.“I tried to lead the people to not pay attention to nonsense, to just do your job,” says the Ohio native and now McLean resident. “I pushed our people to pursue excellence, not demand it.”
And on days when the trials were numerous and the successes sparse, Morell fell back to his belief in the job and those performing it. He often sneaked away (much to his security detail’s dismay) from his office and headed down to the agency’s Memorial Wall honoring those who have fallen in the line of CIA duty. Staring back at the stars, each representing a fallen agent, Morell was reminded of the agency’s necessity as well as its unbridled strength. “The morale of the place is incredibly high,” he says. “Your job [as deputy director] is to channel it.”
This “nose to the grindstone” mentality, as Morell describes it, came to define his time as an agency head. Throughout his career the former deputy director personified a willingness to work not for himself but others because, he says, “doing work that matters, that inspires you” is in the CIA job description. The core value rings true throughout “The Great War of Our Time” and results in a written work of both historical importance and inspiration.
“The world is much, much more complicated now,” Morell says. “But one of the great strengths of (the agency) is the adaptability and flexibility.” Both qualities will be necessary as the agency continues to face steepening challenges with a confidence in their intelligence and willingness to get the job done. For as Morell has been reminded time and again, be it through an urgent call interrupting a birthday dinner or a barging into a private delivery room, “The CIA doesn’t do easy.”