(CBS Local)–Michael Morell was President George W. Bush’s regular quality briefer connected September 11, 2001 and with the president the greeting they learned of the attacks.
Morell, who went connected to service arsenic lawman manager of the CIA from 2010 to 2013, and doubly served arsenic acting manager during that period, appears successful the CBS News Special, “Race Against Time: The CIA and 9/11,” which airs Friday, September 10 astatine 8 p.m. ET connected CBS and volition beryllium disposable to watercourse connected the CBS News app and Paramount+ connected September 11.
CBS News: How did you archetypal larn of the attacks, and what went done your caput erstwhile you did?
Michael Morell: I was successful the statesmanlike motorcade driving from the edifice wherever we had spent the nighttime to [Emma E.] Booker Elementary School [in Sarasota, Florida], wherever the president was going to bash an lawsuit astir his acquisition policy. It was during the thrust from the edifice to the schoolhouse that I heard astir the archetypal plane. And I had the absorption that beauteous overmuch everybody did: “It indispensable beryllium atrocious weather, indispensable beryllium a tiny plane, indispensable beryllium an accident.”
Literally minutes aft we got to the school, the 2nd level hit, and I saw it connected TV. When I saw that, determination was nary uncertainty successful my caput that this was terrorism. There was nary uncertainty successful my caput that this was an onslaught connected America. And nary uncertainty successful my caput that the perpetrator was al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
CBS News: What questions did the president inquire you arsenic the attacks were unfolding? And however soon aft the attacks did the CIA measure that they were the enactment of al Qaeda?
I had 3 substantive interactions with the president that day. The archetypal was that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, aboriginal successful the day, took nationalist recognition [for the attack], and the president asked maine what I knew astir the group. I told him astir the group, astir its past of coercion against Israel, and that they did not person the capableness to bash this. About a fractional hr later, they withdrew their claim.
On the formation from Barksdale Air Force Base successful Louisiana – wherever we had landed to instrumentality connected nutrient and h2o – to Offutt Air Force Base successful Omaha, wherever the president was going to bash a unafraid video teleconference with his nationalist information team, the president asked me, “Michael, who did this?”
I told him I didn’t person immoderate quality yet, but that I’d springiness him my champion assessment. I was not alert astatine this constituent that the CIA, by comparing the formation manifests to its violent databases, had already linked the onslaught to al Qaeda.
So I told him that determination were a mates of violent states, Iran and Iraq, that had the capableness to bash this – but successful my view, neither of them had thing to gain, and some had everything to lose.
I said, “Mr. President, erstwhile we get to the extremity of the roadworthy and find retired who did this, I’m definite we’re going to find bin Laden and al Qaeda.”
And past aboriginal that day, arsenic we were flying backmost to Washington, DC, [CIA Director] George Tenet sent maine a portion of quality to stock with the president that 1 of our spouse quality services successful Western Europe shared with us. I couldn’t measure its credibility, but the connection was stunning: “What happened this greeting was the archetypal of 2 waves of attacks connected the United States.”
CBS News: While inactive aboard Air Force One, you were told astir circumstantial threats to the craft itself. What were they? And what bash you callback reasoning arsenic the president and his squad made the travel backmost to Washington?
Andy Card, the White House Chief of Staff, took maine speech and said, “I privation to archer you something: You’re connected this plane, you person a close to know. There’s been a menace made against Air Force One. We’re taking it earnestly due to the fact that the idiosyncratic who made the menace utilized the Secret Service’s callsign for Air Force One, which astatine that constituent was ‘Angel.'”
When helium told maine that, I was not worried. We were astir apt successful the safest spot we could be. There was an AWACS level flying supra us. There were combatant jets. There was cipher successful the aerial who was going to alert a level into us. And I figured if idiosyncratic had someway enactment a weaponry connected board, it would person detonated already.
There were galore surreal moments that day. Probably the astir surreal was, arsenic we were landing, the president’s subject adjutant was looking retired the windows connected the near broadside of the aircraft. And I had go friends with him during the erstwhile 9 months. And helium said, “Look.” And determination was a combatant pitchy connected the wingtip.
It was an F-16 and, the adjutant said, determination was different 1 connected the different wingtip. The level was truthful close, you could spot the pilot’s facial features, and you could spot the aviator looking astatine us. And successful the distance, you could spot the inactive burning Pentagon; fume billowing retired of it.
The president’s subject adjutant past asked me, “Do you cognize what their occupation is?”
“Their occupation is, if idiosyncratic fires a surface-to-air rocket astatine america connected last approach, to enactment themselves betwixt that rocket and the president of the United States.”
That is arsenic surreal arsenic you tin get.
CBS News: You were besides with President Obama connected the time of the raid successful Abbottabad, Pakistan that eliminated Osama bin Laden. How is the menace from al Qaeda antithetic contiguous than it was erstwhile bin Laden was its leader?
Starting successful the mid-2000s, aft al Qaeda moved from the cities of Pakistan to the tribal areas of Pakistan, they started to rebound. And they developed a important onslaught capableness again. By 2005, they were capable to behaviour attacks successful Madrid and London. And by 2006, they astir conducted an onslaught to bring down 10 to 15 airliners implicit the Atlantic.
So archetypal the Bush administration, and past the Obama administration, undertook a precise assertive argumentation to degrade al Qaeda successful its harmless haven. And by the clip we got to the bin Laden raid successful May of 2011, al Qaeda was already importantly degraded. And I deliberation the sidesplitting of bin Laden enactment an exclamation constituent connected that degradation. It truly was the extremity of what I telephone the “second al Qaeda threat” – the archetypal 1 being their capabilities connected September 10, 2001, and the 2nd this rebound that they had successful the mid 2000s.
One of the important lessons astir counterterrorism, though, is that it’s precise casual to degrade these groups, but it’s besides precise casual for them to bounce back.
So present successful the aftermath of the Taliban taking implicit successful Afghanistan, determination is simply a important hazard that if the United States does not bash the close things – make an quality capableness to support an oculus connected al Qaeda, make a subject capableness to deed them if necessary, and past really usage that capableness – and those are large “ifs” – past we’re going spot al Qaeda bounce backmost again, for a 3rd time, and again, perchance airs a important menace to our allies, and to us, including the homeland.
Why did I accidental “if” earlier? Because arsenic we displacement our efforts to our adjacent competitors, China and Russia, it’s going to beryllium hard to person the resources dedicated to and to support our absorption connected al Qaeda.
CBS News: With the Taliban having seized powerfulness and panic threats again intensifying successful Afghanistan, however bash you deliberation astir America’s engagement there, 20 years aft 9/11?
There were 2 wars successful Afghanistan. The archetypal 1 lasted conscionable a fewer months, and that was a warfare against al Qaeda. And by the extremity of 2001, aboriginal 2002, we had won that war. al Qaeda was nary longer successful Afghanistan. We had either killed, captured, oregon driven retired of Afghanistan each azygous subordinate of al Qaeda. So we won that archetypal war.
The 2nd warfare was a warfare to effort to alteration Afghan nine and Afghan politics. To effort to alteration a medieval, tribal, decentralized strategy into a Western wide ideology with a centralized government. That was a 19-year war, and we mislaid that war. The Taliban won.
As I deliberation astir it that way, I deliberation astir what the Israelis telephone “mow the grass.” The Israelis cognize that they can’t alteration the nine and the authorities successful Gaza. They cognize they can’t spell successful determination and alteration each of that and marque it a ideology and get escaped of extremism. But they bash cognize that Hamas volition continually rebuild its capability. And they cognize that, each erstwhile successful a while, they’re going to person to spell successful determination and degrade that capability. That’s what they notation to as, “mow the grass.”
In retrospect – and hindsight is 2020, right? – we should person taken a “mow the grass” attack to Afghanistan. When you work betwixt the lines of what President Biden is saying our argumentation is going to beryllium going forward, that’s what it is. We volition spot if we tin enactment focused connected that mission.
If that’s the argumentation today, past possibly it would person made consciousness for that to person been the argumentation successful aboriginal 2002.