Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell on how the NSA leaker’s revelations might have led to the Paris attacks.
Michael Morell, the former acting head of the CIA, says the Paris attacks have exposed how freely the Islamic State was able to operate in a chastened environment in which intelligence gathering was partly shut down after Edward Snowden’s exposure of National Security Agency surveillance in 2013. Now, Morell says, the need for greater security is on everyone’s mind — especially since the terrorist group has threatened an attack on the U.S. In his recently published book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From Al Qa’ida to ISIS, Morell accuses Snowden of aiding in the rise of the Islamic State. In an interview on Tuesday with Politico Magazine National Editor Michael Hirsh, Morell elaborates on the damage he believes the leaker has done.
Michael Hirsh: How did the Snowden revelations help the Islamic State, and did they somehow lead to the Paris attacks?
Michael Morell: First, ISIS went to school on how we were collecting intelligence on terrorist organizations by using telecommunications technologies. And when they learned that from the Snowden disclosures, they were able to adapt to it and essentially go silent … And so, part of their rise was understanding what our capabilities were, adjusting to them so we couldn’t see them. No doubt in my mind. And the people who say otherwise are just trying to defend Edward Snowden.
Two — and much more damaging: The Snowden disclosures created this perception that people’s privacy was being put at significant risk. It wasn’t only the Snowden disclosures about [Section] 215 [of the PATRIOT Act, allowing for the mass collection of telephone metadata] that created that, it was the media’s handling of it. The media went to the darkest corner of the room, the CNNs and the FOXes etc. of the world, those people who have a 24/7 news cycle. In those early days, if you were watching CNN, they were saying the NSA is listening to your phone calls. It’s reading your emails. When you call your grandma in Arkansas, the NSA knows. All total bulls–t. They made the public more concerned about the privacy issue than the legitimate facts should have done. And so, the result of that was everything you’ve seen. The constraining of 215. The IT companies building encryption without keys. That is all, at the end of the day, back in Snowden’s lap, in my view.
As far as Paris goes, we don’t know for sure yet how these guys communicate among themselves and how they communicated back to the ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria, but I’m fairly confident we’re going to learn they used these encrypted communication applications that have commercial encryption and are extremely difficult for companies to break — and which the companies have made the decision not to produce a key for. Even if the government goes to them with a warrant, they can’t give them anything because they don’t have a key. These companies made these decisions about encryption when they were finding it very difficult to sell their products overseas because the Snowden disclosures created the impression that the U.S. government was inside this hardware and software produced by them. They needed to do something to deal with the perception.
Hirsh: And did this reduction in our intelligence capability open the way to the attacks in Paris?
Morell: Here’s what I do. I listen to what U.S. officials say, and I’m able to read between the lines based on my experience. I think I’m seeing an attack that was conceived, planned an organized from Raqqa, from the ISIS leadership. i think I see a Mohammad Atta-like character in this guy who’s still at large. The kind of mastermind. You put all that together and what this is at the end of the day is the first ISIS-directed attack in the West. They’ve had directed attacks elsewhere, in Kuwait for example, and every day in Iraq. This is the first one outside the region … That’s what makes this so significant. What [CIA Director] John Brennan said yesterday is really important. He said we know they have other attacks in the pipeline. We also know that nine to 12 months ago, they made a decision to build an attack capability in western Europe, and what we saw in Paris was the first manifestation of that.
We also know that they would like to conduct attacks here. So I don’t know if they’ve started to build that capability here or how far along it is. But I’m convinced they will develop that here unless they’re severely degraded. So how does Snowden play into all that? I think that it shows they communicated among themselves in a way we couldn’t see.
Hirsh: But absent the Snowden disclosures, if all these methods had not been exposed, do you think that U.S. intelligence would have detected the plotting that led to the Paris attacks?
Morell: Don’t know. But it certainly would have given us a fighting chance.
Hirsh: Does Edward Snowden have blood on his hands?
Morell: To be fair, do I believe he contributed to the rise of ISIS? Yes. Would they have gotten there without the help he provided them? Probably. Would they have been able to conduct this attack in Paris without him? Maybe. So the honest answer is I don’t know.
Hirsh: You say we need to ‘severely degrade’ ISIS in order to prevent an attack on the U.S. What do you mean by that?
Morell: I’d say two things. This strategy, this policy, is not achieving its aims. I don’t see how anyone could come to any other conclusion. Here’s the two things that have to happen:
You have to take away their safe haven. One of the lessons we’ve learned from the last 25 years of terrorism is that groups that have safe havens are able to develop external attack capabilities in a way that groups that don’t have safe havens are not. So we need to find a way to squeeze them significantly in their safe haven. Taking away territory that really matters to them is really, really important because it prevents them from focusing on external attacks.
The other thing we‘ve learned from the last 20 years of counterterrorism is the significant value you get from removing leadership from the battlefield in degrading the organization. You have to have a military and intelligence approach to removing leadership that results in rapid frequent removals from the battlefield. It’s got to be one, two a week, not just one or two every three or four months.
Hirsh: At his news conference on Monday, President Barack Obama challenged his critics to say specifically what they would do differently from what he’s already doing. If you’re not going to send a lot of troops — and no one is really advocating that — what would you do differently?
Morell: I think it’s a false choice. I do not think the president is saying that, but I think it’s a false choice between what we’re doing today and U.S. boots on the ground during the fighting. That’s how it’s being painted, but there is actually a significant spectrum between those two options, and I think there’s a lot of room to go to right on that spectrum without getting to U.S. boots on the ground. One example: I see significant value in putting a much larger number of U.S. special forces guys on the ground very close, if not in front lines, whether with the Kurds or Iraqis, etc.— to both provide advice and to call much more precision airstrikes.
Hirsh: We’re not doing that already?
Morell: I don’t think so, not in large numbers. And I don’t think they’re that close to the battlefield.
And as far as planning goes, the key question in the situation room should be: If the Paris attacks happened here, what would we do? We shouldn’t wait for an attack to happen before we start asking that question and answering it.
Hirsh: Do you really think ISIS intends to attack the United States? Isn’t that just braggadocio? Why are they talking about it if they really intend to do it?
Morell: Because there’s one great lesson from history we need to keep on re-learning. It is that sometimes your adversaries tell you exactly what they’re going to do. How many times did [Osama] bin Laden say prior to 9/11 that he was coming after the U.S.? ISIS made clear that when they established their caliphate in Iraq and Syria, they were coming after the United States too.