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Book Review: The Great War of Our Time

By (May 24, 2015) No Comment

The Great War of Our Time:the great war for our time cover

The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism from Al QA’IDA to ISIS

by Michael Morell (with Bill Harlow)

Twelve, 2015

About one thing Michael Morell, CBS News correspondent and former deputy director of the CIA, is almost certainly correct in his new book The Great War of Our Time: the struggle between the Western world and Islamic terrorism is the great war of the modern era. In a way, it’s a self-evident point, since the main proponents of that terrorism – organized and well-funded groups like Boko Haram and ISIS – openly call for the destruction of Western civilization, the enslavement of women, the murder of ideological opponents, the sledge-hammering of archeological sites, the reduction of all education to the memorization of one 7th century text (and often not even that; one hardly imagines any number of Koranic scholars in the ranks of Boko Haram’s girl-kidnappers), and the execution of nonbelievers. And given the nature of its operations, the CIA often finds itself on the front lines of such a struggle. This sets up a great deal of potential for a book like The Great War of Our Time.

That potential is pretty much instantly evaporated by Morell, who opens his book with a disclaimer announcing its irrelevance: “This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.”

But even so, we sift for worth. Morell worked for six US presidents – three Democrats and three Republicans – and he was the executive assistant to CIA Director George Tenet during some pivotal years, with a close operating relationship with the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC). He’s had plenty of inside information on the key players in the struggle that is his subject. About Osama bin Laden (whom he styles “Usama bin Ladin”), for instance, he tells us: “He loved poetry, black stallions, and soccer,” adding ominously, “He was an avid follower of English football.” (He also categorically denies any damning connections: “Despite many stories over the years to the contrary, CIA never worked with Bin Laden in the Agency’s own efforts to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s”).

But with every such detail, the reading eye goes back to the fact that this book was vetted by the CIA before it was published. Morell comes across in these pages as a loyal partisan, but even if he weren’t – even if there were doubts in this book, or cynicism, or reflection – we’d hardly expect to know about it, what with the Agency reading over his shoulder the whole time. Morell raises the subject of the three most common misconceptions about the CIA: that it’s all-powerful, ala Tom Clancy, that it’s incompetent, “made up of people who screw up everything they touch” and that it’s a “rogue” agency, “sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always pursuing its own agenda, all without authority, direction, or control of America’s elected leaders.” And he denies all three misconceptions by substituting a fourth that’s every bit as fantastic:

CIA gets many things right and a few things wrong. And in my experience CIA officers always did what they thought was best for the country, and they undertook operations only with the approval, authorization, and direction of our nation’s elected leaders.

This hymn of praise, coming from a writer who makes casual reference to the CIA’s use of “harsh interrogation techniques,” may strike some readers as a bit self-serving, and Morell doesn’t help things any by equally casually, even jokingly, telling treasured anecdotes in which he lies – sorry, “fibs” – for no reason, as when his boss asks him after his first few trying weeks on the job “Are you OK?” and he “fibbed and told him everything was fine,” or when he gets a call from the office while he’s in the delivery room of Arlington Hospital while his wife gives birth – the call is to tell him he’s being considered for the job as Tenet’s assistant, but when his wife asks him what it was about, we’re told, “I gave her the standard answer that an Agency officer provides to a questioning spouse, ‘Oh, it was nothing,’ and I went back to my primary job of delivering ice chips on demand.” It’s an amusingly human moment, but even the most sympathetic reader will wonder how much of this entire book is “the standard answer that an Agency officer provides.”

This can’t be simple naivete, although it often resembles it. When Morell writes about the contested Philippine election of 1986 that Ferdinand Marcos stole from Corazon Aquino, for instance, Morell discusses “the systematic disenfranchisement of millions of voters in areas expected to vote in large numbers of Aquino” but calls it a “new” technique – which is a tough thing to square with the CIA’s long history of applying that very old technique in the service of some of its most morally dubious clients. Maybe Morell would say that’s conflating the “all-powerful” CIA with the “rogue” CIA.

His book’s clearest clarion deals with the rising importance of counterterrorism in the modern asymmetrical world, and he effectively evokes the history and extent of counterterrorism during his time with the Agency:

The counterterrorism arena had a dizzying array of bad guys – Lebanese Hezbollah, responsible for several mass attacks against the United States and for more American fatalities than any terrorist group prior to 9/11; Egyptian terrorist groups al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya and the Islamic Jihad …; Palestinian groups responsible for multiple attacks against Israel; and many others outside the Middle East – ranging from the Irish Republican Army in the United Kingdom to the Sendero Luminoso or “Shining Path” in Peru.

To this list he adds the forces of Moslem terrorism that have mushroomed during the last few years, and in reading his passionate book, it’s easy to imagine how those rising threats must worry this former old hand. But on the subject of his own CIA’s involvement with – and responsibility for – some of those forces, his book is frustratingly opaque. Vetted to be so.