Ep. 96 - Michael Morell

Update: 2016-11-14


Michael Morell, the former acting director of the CIA, reflects on George W. Bush and Barack Obama after serving both presidents for years; shares his harrowing experience of being with President Bush on 9/11, and the subsequent decisions that he believes contributed to the invasion of Iraq; and what he sees as the most rapidly growing threat to America’s national security.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at Today The The The The and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod The The shortly before the presidential election I sat down with Mike Morel the former acting director of the C I A who had endorsed Hillary Clinton to talk about his career and in the intelligence agency thirty years there's experiences through nine eleven that bin Laden and his general sense of the world but much of this interview was predicated on an assumption that assumption was that Hillary Clinton would be elected president so just bear that in mind as you listen to this interview and Mike Morales extraordinary story The The The The Mike Moreau welcome here and welcome to the Institute of Politics we've been a splendid fellow don't you think you this quarter and digging into your life I look back at your youth and it didn't point to becoming sort of one of the lead intelligence officers for the United States of America talk about growing up in northeastern Ohio yes ion came from on middle class family on my father an auto worker for Chrysler on my mom a homemaker and occasionally she would be a salad girl in a local restaurant and that she was home so they're called Salad Salad Girls may chop the salad laid it all out for the salad bar salad tuna salad guy selling guys and you know I I there was that there was emphasis in the house on learning time in education we are parents that they were so just just high school grads on him no college at all on my sister was the first in the household to go to college and nine I followed behind her there was always there was always the assumption that we would go to college there is never any question about that and there was there was never any question that we would stay at home went to college and go to the University of Akron and that was that was what the plan was on the last or for for a close family or culture or it was close to family and it was financial it was all about and answer I never even thought of going anywhere else I never looked anywhere on but I was this the traditional spawning ground of a government official I had a great conversation with President Bush wants when he was he was some critiquing intellectuals and in the middle of his critique on he turned to me and he said Michael you're not intellectual are you that I said Mr. President University of Akron here was that a bonding thing yes it actually was of course he was Harvard but to be that as of May he and the fact that I went University of Akron resonate within you know I speak of your sister she said of you when when he was a kid one day you want to be a garbage man the next they want to be a brain surgeon so is anybody's guess but when he said he was moving to Washington and have a job with the CAA was the last thing I expected was at the last thing you expected yes because at the University of Akron where I am happen again grade education I fell in love with economics I majored in and I fell in love with that and why it seems to me to explain on the economy and economic behavior but it seems to me to explain on a lot of of personal behavior on a course that's that's the school here in Chicago rain on and if's so fell in love with it that I wanted to go to grad school get a PhD and teach and I applied to a number of places including yours Chicago because it is teaching the kind of economics that I was interested in and I got an Amen I was going to come to the PhD program here well on had a professor at University of Akron who I think get some work from the agency and he encouraged me to send the agency an application send them or SMA on so I did they invited me to Washington I had never been to Washington DC before so I said Sure I'll come on and I went for two days on the government's dime on to do interviews but actually see our nation's capital right on the government's money with with the intention the entire time David of if offered a job say no and off to the universe Chicago is going get a PhD and teach that the two days in Washington at the C I A on changed all that I was blown away by the mission of keeping the country safe which at that time was like very much influenced by the Cold War was the brooding presence out there yes yes and my first job very first job was to work with a team that was trying to figure out how dependent Western Europe was going to be calm on Soviet natural gas if the Soviets built pipelines and President Reagan authorized the sale of GE turbines for these type of pipeline so much my work feel that still an issue today it's kind of played into the geopolitics of that region to combat this day and come back on she was blown away by the mission of the place I was blown away by the capabilities of the organization I was blown away by the quality of the people that I met and they said Eunice grad school thing you wanna do will pay for that that's that's that would be influential to and Tom let me just stop you I want to go on with your history but I don't want to leave economics because you're from Akron and because your student of economics just as an aside of what's happened to regions like that here and elsewhere because I know you've studied global economics and how much does it inform your understanding we're going to get into two thousand and sixteen later but how much does it inform your understanding of what's going on in our politics today actually a lot on what's happened to places like North East Ohio on Pittsburgh Youngstown Detroit on a lot there's a lot of people on who have been left behind by globalization and technology on not only people who'll who are a little bit older on and don't have the skills to operate in the modern economy but Ashley people coming out of high school I don't have them either because our education system is not teaching the skills that are necessary to succeed in this economy soul world is leaving people behind and I experienced this personally when when I was twelve thirteen and first became aware of the family finances my dad made twenty thousand dollars a year and that was enough to put ah solidly in the middle class in Akron Ohio on when he retired some twenty years later he's still making twenty thousand dollars a year little bit more but you still making twenty thousand dollars a year roughly and you can't be in the middle class anymore on and so it is not possible to be unskilled worker and unite America and in the middle class and has a huge change and I happen to believe this as an economics guy on I've done now all the coursework for a PhD agency came through and did pay for that sent me away to school for a year pay my salary pay for school on I believe that time to finish anything and I'm done on you know that that that that capitalism is is one of the most powerful forces for good in history of the world I really believe that arm but if we don't take care of these people who have been left behind were gonna lose that right I say listen I'm I'm so with this I think my great disappointment about this campaign is that the fundamental challenge of our time is in these revolutionary times when it comes to changes in our economy we really haven't thought through what the implications are for those who are left behind and I don't think it's just about social welfare programs because work is not just about a paycheck it's about dignity it's about self exactly and ice and you that I think that that's a lot of the force behind what we see with Donald Trump and I know you've studied these global trends I think Europe is facing some of these same issues they've got unique challenges relative to migration and their own social welfare structure the aging of populations but but not completely dissimilar and you know why I think we've come up with great answers yet I've seen this play many many times watching the rest of the world I've seen struggling economies where people are not doing and they turn to populist candidates either on the left are on the right that's exactly what happened in this election right people ran to Bernie Sanders will fix this through income redistribution in a random Trump who said I will just fix this right to better trade deals or August six at nine am to tell you how and so they've gone their ride and a history of the countries that I have seen who have ended up putting in office either a leftist populist or writers populace have fallen further behind economically because they're there those policies on the far left or far right end up undermining the economy further you know it's the policies to end up driving progress not the policies on on the far ends yet we we see not just the US but we see in France with Le pen for Raj in Britain who hasn't succeeded elect orally but he did push for exit the two to victory and in several of the sea Germany by some of these forces gathering so this is not just a challenge for the US is the challenge are for advanced democracies everywhere does globalization technology dynamic is is everywhere and it's affecting everybody you you went on and spent a great deal of time in East Asia and studying that part of the world of home since we've already since we since I've advanced this discussion on on the first front talk about that and what you saw the evolution you've seen are the challenges for the US they're based on your experience night so I started not surprisingly working out on economics of East Asia and what you see there which is a I think a great lesson on were were two things that drove the dynamic economic growth of East Asia one was a focus on free markets and free trade and the other in these two things go together beautifully the other was a focus on education and really educating and developing a workforce who can who could succeed and that in an open environment that's exactly what you saw in Hong Kong in Taiwan in Singapore in South I mean out that was a huge lesson of my time watching watching those countries it was one of the interesting things David about all of that as it is on those market oriented reforms and the focus on education was done at a time when they were all authoritarian states on and they were able to drive those reforms many of them politically unpopular but they were able to drive them right and one of my concerns about a place like the Middle East as democracy becomes more important as the voice of the people become more important it gets harder to do the kind of economic reforms you need to do to actually grow on long term that's one lesson the big issue big issue in East Asia is China and what is with China going to look like or the next twenty five to fifty years I think I think David that the most important bilateral relationship in the world is the one between Washington and Beijing and the possible outcomes in that relationship are huge they range at one end of the spectrum from cooperation the kind of cooperation that we saw on climate change is fantastic imagine what we could do with China if we cooperate in all her stuff too on the other end of the spectrum war and huge range of possibilities here on there are in my mind gave it to things that are pulling us together in place in the right direction and two things pulling us apart the two things points in the right direction is that we both have a huge stake despite what Donald Trump's as we both have a huge stake in success of the Chinese economy particularly reforming China's economy and we in and I base this on my own experiences talking to Chinese intelligence officers the number of places in the world where our national security interests are actually starting to overlap is exceeding those places where they're actually intention to there are opportunities for us to work together in the world for good great example is the Middle East where they have even a bigger stake than we do in the stability of place given how much energy they they take from there how important it is to them those are two things corn is in the right direction and we need to we need to use those opportunities to push the relationship in the right direction the two things pulling us apart David on the first is we both have large militaries in the same place in the plan when that happens you plan for were against each other on you equip yourself for war against each other intern in terms of the weapon systems you buy and to exercise those war plans right and both sides do it and both sides see the other side doing it and that creating natural tension in the Chinese obviously have become pretty aggressive South China Sea and the brings to the second thing in the last thing in the hardest things pulling us apart which is there a rising power were status quo power as a rising power they want a greater say in the world guess who has that say today we do right how does that get resolved colleague of mine at the Kennedy School did a study recently where he looked at at every time in history when a rising power came up again status quo power resulted in war seventy percent of the time how does that fundamental tension get resolved that they want a greater say that we have that say how does that get resolved South China Sea is is where that's playing out today you of the trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that was negotiated now before the Senate of how important is that in terms of the stability or in terms of American interests in the region and American leadership in the region I think I think it's important for a number of reasons I think it's important economically I think it will enhance living standards both in East Asia and in the United States you know your neighbors in Akron don't believe I know they don't I know they don't and I think it's it's incumbent upon the political leadership to educate them about that on to its important strategically it's important from a national security perspective because if we don't do this the nations of East Asia will increasingly turn to China for our economics but increasingly for security issues so it's actually important from a strategic perspective and then thirdly you mentioned it's just important from the perspective of demonstrating U S leadership in the world which there isn't anybody honestly we have to do it you you know the obvious next question is about your candidate you've endorsed Hillary Clinton for president she was a strong supporter of the TPP when she was secretary of state in for some time after under the pressures of the campaign she switched positions and has been pretty emphatic about sticking to it are you disappointed about that I understand I understand the politics on my understand how it works is responding to your neighbors in Action Yes on I believe that you know she she moved to the left because Bernie Sanders Forster there on I happen to believe that she will govern from the center when you say you expect Hillary Clinton to govern from the center do you believe that she will revive if not embrace the TPP I think I think there's a good chance that that TPP passes in a lame duck on I wouldn't be surprised if I don't I don't know this but I wouldn't be surprised if that would be her preference as well and that is is President Obama doing in his final days mom that's my sense and you think that will create political problems for her on the left probably should have to manage than you but you came into prom I mean I think the Hallmark of the C I A officer is to have no prominence at all but you had a prominent position as a result of being the brief for two President George W Bush during a very frayed time in our history talk about for small talk about him and I want to talk obviously about that period you the World Trade Center was attacked you delivered this report this famous report in August of two thousand one that was entitled Bin Laden determined To Strike in the US that some people say should have been a red flag of talk about George W Bush first as a as a person and as a president that you dealt with and then let's talk about nine what should happen and what happened after sure on I have great admiration for George Bush on you know he loves time with in a lifetime in every day for year six days a week no matter where he went in world on whether it was overseas trip domestic trip on that's why I was with him on a lemon vacation time you know you one of the greatest jokes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner was George W Bush saying look I know people don't think I'm smart even my aids don't think of when they put this thing called an intelligence briefing on my schedule everyday oh yeah I thought took a lot and I thought it was a great joke and it showed something about him that he was willing to tell and said he was a lot smarter on and many people thought I found on I found he was very quick to understand an issue that he was very quick to get to the essence of the core of the issue on he asked great questions I thought his policy instincts were were on the money on I think some of his some of his closest aides took him in directions that that were actually again some of his instincts him but I found him to be to be a great consumer and very consumer of intelligence I also found him to be an incredibly gracious and nice man he welcomed me into his home he welcomed me into his family on days I was I was afraid he made me so comfortable that I was afraid I was going to slip up at some point in calling George Brennan Mr. President that's how comfortable he made me feel on when when in in in in in Crawford at the ranch we would have breakfast on before we did everything on and we have cereal and cereal bowls and we talk about the baseball scores in the night before and then we would have to do the dishes together before we before we did everything sign that's yeah that's how I often tell the story about them my encounter with him on the day that President Obama was inaugurated and he had been very kind to us in the transition was personally kind to me and encouraging to me that to in a way that I'll never forget I disagree with decisions that he made but it was really impressed with them as a person and particularly impressed with the way he handled the transition which to me was really an act of patriotism from a then I had been in time and events are a number of transitions I think it was it was the best managed transition that I had seen I think they did everything they could to set us up for success will take a quick break for word from our sponsor will be back with my morale rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust who has your best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty so about that report the August six two thousand and one but who's counting and counting yeah what what should have been done that wasn't done with that report nothing so here's the story of that report on in the spring and early summer of two thousand when we were getting some considerable intelligence chatter down al Qaeda was planning a significant attack on possible multiple targets possibly a catastrophic attack on the intelligence said nothing about location method or timing on it turns out that what we were picking up in the spring of two thousand and one was bin Laden from training camp to training camp training camp in Afghanistan and giving pep talks to his guys on and telling them that something big was coming in that's all he was saying right and we were picking up the chatter that was resulting from all of that so every time every time that George Tenet who was then the Director Central Intelligence who sat in on the briefings and I presented some of this intelligence to the present he would always ask Michael is there any indication in this intelligence that this attack could be here he was deeply concerned about that and we would always answer David we would always say there's nothing in the intelligence that says that but he would like nothing more than to bring the fight here he is planning to do that he wants to do that so nothing in the intelligence that Texas Dear Mr. President but he would like to do that on so he kept on asking this over again and I finally asked our guys to do a report for him about bin Laden's intentions in the United States so that was the August six PB but there is nothing actionable there was nothing actionable it simply said he wants to do this he's been planning to Keats try to over the Millennium to try to sneak somebody States who was arrested coming across the Canadian border who's going to tackle IX he's tried to he continues to want to but there's nothing right there's nothing that links this back to the earlier reporting about a catastrophic attack and there's nothing that we know he's planning right now so there was nothing actionable in it I did not treated as a as a hair on fire peace and he did not read it that way let's move forward to September eleventh you are with him in Florida when he was reading My Pet goat to a bunch of school kids when the word came that that the World Trade Centers been struck had been struck what was your first reaction when you got that new to my first reaction was that because because we heard one plain one building right that's all we heard my reaction was his reaction on his must have an accident must be a small plain bad weather guy on first thing I did was call the CI operation center and learned very quickly that now the weather was fine this was not a small plane has a large commercial jet know then that there were other planes in the air that were now so it was at that at that point was the first in the first few minutes after the first plane hit on and then I walked into the the staff room which was right next to the room the school had set aside for the White House staff was right next to where the president was and it was in there that we saw actually saw the second plane hit and at that point I knew that this was terrorism and we were in for choir i did and what was what was President Bush's reaction when you fill them in on the picture on so my hands on my the rest of my day on I spent the rest of the day with him the rest of my day was kind of a mixture of the intensity my job in that kind of situation and the surreal an example of the intensity of doing my job when we flew from Barksdale Air Force Base and off Air Force Base in Omaha where he was going to do a secure video teleconference with his national security team he asked to see me alone so it was and Andy Card the White House staff and I sat down in his office on Air Force One on three small place on and he said to me Michael who did this question from resident on and I said Mr. President I haven't seen any intelligence that takes us to to to the perpetrator here on the laughing in my opinion and he said I understand get on with it finished in a carry on economic that I said look there's two countries that have the ability to do this or on Iraq but neither of them has anything to gain in they have everything to lose by doing something like this so I don't think it's one of those countries I think the trail will take us to al Qaeda and some of bin Laden on think it'll take us there I said I would bet my children's future on I've never told them that yes he then he then said to me
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Ep. 96 - Michael Morell

The Axe Files with David Axelrod