The CIA man who briefed President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001, and later President Barack Obama on the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden said Tuesday that he’s convinced the Taliban will invite al-Qaida to rebuild in Afghanistan.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” said Michael Morell, who twice served as acting CIA director. “I believe that the Taliban will give safe haven to al-Qaida, and I believe it will be al-Qaida’s intention to again build its capability so that they can attack us here at home.”
Morell spoke at an online forum sponsored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which is holding multiple panels this week to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Counterterrorism efforts fall into a pattern, Morell said, in which their capabilities can be easily degraded by a focused effort, but easily rebuilt when that focus fades. He pointed to the time in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. shifted its focus to Iraq, which he said led to a resurgent al-Qaida prompting attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005 and elsewhere.
“When our focus got shifted to Iraq al-Qaida started bouncing back,” Morell said.
He said that if al-Qaida establishes a safe haven in Afghanistan, it can be hard to develop the kind of tactical intelligence that makes it possible to take action against them. He said the U.S. will have to apply the lessons it learned over the last 20 years.
Equally important, he said, is that the U.S. uphold its values as it hunts terrorists. He acknowledged that the years immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks were a controversial period for the CIA, when it ran secret prisons and allowed interrogations that many people say crossed the line into torture.
He said those are missions the CIA never should have accepted.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, we were not experienced at interrogations,” he said. “Interviewing somebody who is willing to tell you everything, you know, we’re really good at that. But getting somebody to talk who doesn’t want to talk to you, no experience in that whatsoever.”
Raj Parekh, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who moderated the discussion with Morell, noted during Tuesday’s forum that the attack on the Pentagon occurred within the Eastern District of Virginia.
“These tragedies are deeply personal for our community,” he said. “We join with our neighbors, remembering those when we lost, thanking those who responded to save lives and honoring those who gave their last full measure of devotion.”
On Thursday, a panel is planned to discuss the 2006 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person convicted in a U.S. court for a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. The judge who presided over the trial, Leonie Brinkema, is scheduled to participate, as are a prosecutor and defense lawyer from the trial.
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