September 18, 2018
Photo by D. McQuade

On the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Michael Morell, former acting director of the CIA, participated in a public conversation with Nicholas Dujmovic, director of Catholic University’s Intelligence Studies Program. Before an audience of more than 100 guests in the University’s Pryzbyla Center, Morell shared his experience working as President George W. Bush’s CIA briefer on that historic day. The event was co-hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology and the Intelligence Studies Program.

Morell was with President Bush in Florida when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The day, Morell recalled, was “a mixture of the intensity of doing my job and the surreal.” When the president asked Morell who he believed was responsible for the attacks he responded, “I would bet my children’s future that when we get to the end of this trail it will take us to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.” Morell recalled the flight on Air Force One after the president learned of the attacks, “I didn’t know a commercial jet could do what Air Force One did that day.”

Morell and Dujmovic also discussed the CIA’s actions and role in counterterrorism before and after the 9/11 attacks. No institution, Morell said, was more focused on Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden before 9/11 than the CIA. On the topic of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, Morell described the intelligence about WMDs in Iraq as the “greatest intelligence failure in U.S. history.” It was an intelligence collection failure, Morell explained, because intelligence officers failed to penetrate Saddam Hussein’s inner circle to find out what he was doing. But there was also a failure on the part of analysts to rigorously assess and communicate their confidence in their own judgments.

Morell also described how the CIA has learned from past mistakes. Today, he said, every judgment carries a confidence level. In the summer of 2010, Morell was serving as the deputy director of the CIA when the CIA learned of an unusual compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan that could be harboring bin Laden. Because of their experience in Iraq, he recalled, the CIA did extensive alternative analysis to consider other possible explanations.

At the end of the conversation Morell took questions from the audience and offered advice to students aspiring to a career in the CIA or other civil service positions. One of the most important qualities recruiters will look for, Morell said, is “passion about your country.” But one of the greatest determinants of success, he continued, is “the ability to self-assess your performance.”