Former CIA official claims agency botched call on Arab Spring - new book

Reuters / Larry Downing
The Central Intelligence Agency failed to anticipate the Arab Spring uprisings and then erroneously believed those revolts would hamper Al-Qaeda’s strength in the region, according to a new book by a former deputy director of the CIA.

“We were lax in creating our own windows into what was happening, and the leadership we were relying on was isolated and unaware of the tidal wave that was about to hit,” wrote Michael Morell, a career CIA officer, in his forthcoming book, “The Great War of Our Time.”

Accordingto The Washington Post, which reviewed a copy of the book, Morell wrote that once the Arab Spring was in full swing in areas such as Tunisia and Egypt, the CIA believed extremist groups like Al-Qaeda would lose out.

“We thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage Al-Qaeda by undermining the group’s narrative,” he wrote.

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But events unfolded differently, as “the Arab Spring was a boon to Islamic extremists across both the Middle East and North Africa,” he wrote. “From a counterterrorism perspective, the Arab Spring had turned to winter.”

In the case of Egypt, where longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak clung to power despite ribald revolt, Morell said the CIA attempted to direct him to appoint a transitional government rather than let popular anger result in revamped leadership.

Morell said he was in contact with Egypt’s intelligence director, Omar Suleiman, who allegedly indicated he was looking to the US for assistance. Through their communications, the US urged Mubarak to step down and make way for a transitional council.

“Later my contact phoned me back and told me that Suleiman had not only gotten the message but that he had convinced Mubarak to make those points in his remarks,” Morell said, though Mubarak ultimately did not follow the suggestion. He was forced from office ten days later.

Morell, a two-time interim director of the CIA, also defended the agency’s torture regime following the attacks of September 11, 2001, an event that is central to the book. He criticized the Senate Intelligence Committee’s analysis of CIA torture. Among other findings, the report revealed no evidence that the agency’s interrogation techniques were successful in producing significant reliable intelligence.

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Morell also apologized to former US secretary of state Colin Powell for the CIA’s assessments. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Powell took the case for war to the United Nations using the CIA’s reports.

Morell blamed then-Vice President Dick Cheney for pressuring the agency into finding links between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that would justify the US invasion.

Though the jihadist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) has publicly split with Al-Qaeda’s top leadership, Morell insisted that Islamic State and Al-Qaeda are ideological partners. The former, he wrote, is not solely focused regionally but is bent on attacking the US, “just like bin Laden did.”

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According to a New York Times review of the book, Morell also wrote that Republicans in Congress attempted to distort CIA intelligence regarding the attacks on a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. The assault left four Americans dead, including Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya. He rebutted an oft-repeated GOP talking point, that military and intelligence officials "were ordered to stand down" during the attacks.

Morell said the CIA did not seek to protect then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the aftermath of the attack. However, he added that the White House used CIA intelligence to spin the story in its favor and stonewalled the agency, hindering it from sharing an internal report on the events in Benghazi with Congress.