Former CIA deputy: Yeah, our bad on that whole “al Qaeda is on the run” claim

Ed Morrissey Posted at 8:41 am on May 04, 2015

Three years ago, Barack Obama and Joe Biden took a victory lap across America, celebrating the successful mission that tracked down Osama bin Laden. Obama repeatedly insisted, “al-Qaeda is on the run!” over the course of the campaign, and then had to parse that claim very narrowly after the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. Obama claimed he’d meant that “core al-Qaeda” was on the run, but the definition of what constituted that core got more and more ambiguous. The network and its affiliates grew rapidly in the vacuums left in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, thanks to the policy decisions made by Obama that destabilized them.

Former deputy CIA director Mike Morell finally admits that all the parsing was nonsense, but that it was the CIA’s fault for passing along the bad intel:

U.S. intelligence agencies ­badly misjudged al-Qaeda’s ­ability to take advantage of political turmoil in the Middle East and regain strength across the region after Osama bin Laden was killed, according to a new book by the CIA’s former deputy director.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials have previously acknowledged failures to anticipate the Arab Spring movement, which toppled governments in the Middle East and North Africa. But the former official, Michael ­Morell, wrote that the CIA compounded those errors with optimistic assessments that the ­upheaval would prove devastating to al-Qaeda.

“We thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage al-Qaeda by undermining the group’s narrative,” Morell wrote in the book, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post ahead of its release later this month.

Instead, “the Arab Spring was a boon to Islamic extremists across both the Middle East and North Africa,” he said. “From a counterterrorism perspective, the Arab Spring had turned to winter.”

The reality? AQ’s reach has exploded as a result of all the Arab Spring turmoil:

Four years after the initial street protests in Tunisia that set off the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda and its progeny have gained territory and strength in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. U.S. officials have said recently that they expect conflicts exploited by extremists to persist for a decade or more.

Morell’s book recalls another failure of intelligence — the lack of solid information on Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs. Bloomberg’s John Walcott also reports on Morell’s memoirs, specifically about the lack of rigor in the presentations to the Bush administration by the intelligence community. This time, though, Morell blames the DIA:

Morell apologizes to Powell in the book for his agency’s erroneous assessments of Iraq’s WMD programs and says that then-Vice President Dick Cheney pressured analysts in the CIA and elsewhere to find links between Iraq and al-Qaeda that didn’t exist.

Morell, though, also says that group-think, poor analysis, nonexistent sources in Iraq’s senior leadership, and the absence of fresh intelligence to update four-year-old data buttressed the administration’s fears and fed its sales pitch for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He faults the Defense Intelligence Agency for “analytical malpractice” for failing to alert the CIA that a prime source of allegations that Saddam Hussein possessed a mobile biological weapons production capability that made it into Powell’s speech was a known fabricator. …

More broadly, Morell acknowledges in one of many now-they-tell-us moments that “by far, the biggest mistake made by analysts” was not the wrong conclusions “but rather that they did not rigorously ask themselves how confident they were in their judgments.”

They “would most likely have said ‘not very,’” and constituted a collective judgment “that would have been a very different message to the president and other policy-makers and potentially could have affected their policy decision.”

It doesn’t sound as if the CIA learned much from that lesson, though. Less than a decade later, the CIA decided that upheavals and turmoil in the Middle East would somehow make life more difficult for terrorists, all evidence and experience to the contrary. As a result, the Obama administration pursued destabilizing policies across the board, and we now have failed states in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen as a direct result of American policies and actions. Syria has also become a failed state, although the US role in that outcome was less direct. And now we have a terrorist quasi-state proclaimed in the Iraq-Syria region by an organization that had been known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, but now calls itself the Islamic State.

Not exactly “on the run,” eh? No one needed the CIA to figure that out. Still, the message suited Obama’s purposes, and it raises another question, similar to that in the post-Iraq invasion period: did the CIA just mouth back what the White House demanded they say? Was this also poor “group-think,” or even perhaps pressure from on high to declare the enemy on the verge of defeat? In the excerpts released so far, Morell doesn’t say, but even a denial here looks a little like falling on one’s sword.