Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell said Edward Snowden’s disclosure of top-secret U.S. surveillance, including spying on allies, harmed national security more than any other leak in modern times.
“The damage here was extensive, the most damage that I have ever seen from a disclosure,” Morell, a 33-year veteran of the U.S. spy agency, said today at a forum in Washington sponsored by Bloomberg Government.
Morell, 55, who retired in August after twice serving as acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, declined to say whether spying on allies is necessary or what the damage has been from reports that the U.S. National Security Agency tapped phone calls of allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This latest round of disclosures based on documents leaked by Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA who has been granted asylum in Russia, has triggered waves of protests around the world and calls by U.S. lawmakers for investigations into spying practices.
“In my mind, this guy is not a hero,” Morell said, because Snowden “violated the law and violated the trust that was placed in him.”
President Barack Obama has ordered an independent review of NSA operations that is being conducted by former government officials, including Morell.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a statement yesterday that her panel “was not satisfactorily informed” of the eavesdropping on allies.
Obama ‘Not Aware’
“It is my understanding that President Obama was not aware Chancellor Merkel’s communications were being collected since 2002,” said Feinstein, a California Democrat. “That is a big problem.”
The committee now plans to conduct an investigation into all intelligence collection programs, she said.
Morell said the one good thing to come from the spying disclosures is that they will force what he described as a healthy re-examination of agency operations.
“It is a good thing for an organization, or a community organization, to scrub themselves, to take a hard look at what it is they’re doing,” Morell said.
“That’s exactly what the president is doing,” he said. “It’s exactly what Congress is doing, and it’s what the president has asked the review board to do.”
Morell served as acting director of the CIA when Leon Panetta left the post to become secretary of defense and again after retired General David Petraeus resigned in the midst of an adultery scandal.
Morell was with President George W. Bush on the day of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and was with Obama on May 1, 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden. After that successful raid in Pakistan, Morell said, Obama asked him to brief Bush about the operation. Morell said he talked with Bush for two and a half hours.
“It was closure for him, as it was for me,” Morell said.
The CIA’s former No. 2 official also said his concerns about terrorism focus chiefly on Syria and Afghanistan.
The greatest risk in Syria, he said, may be the collapse of the state, in which case it becomes a safe haven for al-Qaeda.
“They’re thinking of using Syria as a launching pad for attacks against the U.S.,” Morell said of al-Qaeda.
On Afghanistan, the danger is that al-Qaeda will grow stronger by finding safe havens in areas controlled by the Taliban, he said.
In that case, “there is a risk the threat to the homeland will re-emerge to a level that is significant again,” Morell said.
Asked to describe any misperceptions about the CIA, the former deputy director said, “We are not Matt Damon and we are not rogue.”
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