The following is a transcript of an interview with former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell that aired on Sunday, September 12, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: For more analysis on the threats facing the country, we turn to Michael Morell. He’s a former acting director of the CIA and a CBS News contributor. Great to have you here.
FMR. ACTING AND DEPUTY CIA DIRECTOR MIKE MORELL: Great to be here, MARGARET. Good to have you back.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Thank you. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda, issued a video on the 20th anniversary of the attacks. The U.N. said in July he’s living in Afghanistan, is he?
MORELL: We think so, which means that the Taliban is harboring Zawahiri today. The Taliban is harboring al Qaeda today. And I think that’s a very important point.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So is that just a complete false premise then to say that pulling out of Afghanistan, we can still keep the threat from al Qaeda at bay?
MORELL: We have a lot of work to do in order to do that, right? We have to figure out how we’re going to collect intelligence, two types of intelligence. How are we going to make sure that Al Qaeda is not rebuilding its capabilities and is planning on attacking us again? And then we have to- if we do that, then we have to collect the kind of intelligence that gives you the precision you need to conduct strikes, right? Drones need to be told exactly where on the earth to go. What tells you that is precision intelligence. So a lot of work for the intelligence community to do here going forward.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And we’ve seen some of that. If you follow headlines, the CIA director in Pakistan this week, he’s already said under oath Bill Burns that you will have fewer intelligence tools if you pull out U.S. troops. So what exactly do we need and isn’t building up in the region the opposite of what the president intended to do, which was look at Asia and threats elsewhere?
MORELL: So we have China, right? China is a big problem. It’s the big strategic threat facing the United States. We got to- we have to- we have to pivot to that, but we also have to keep our eye on terrorism. And there’s terrorists in a lot of different places in the world. The president is right about that. But I think the place where we are most at risk from over the long term and the intelligence community is saying 12 months, so the long term is kind of short here, is Afghanistan, right? So al Qaeda could bounce back in as quickly as 12 months in Afghanistan if we don’t do what we need to do.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So when I talk to sources about this, what they say to the argument you just laid out is, well, why Afghanistan? Why regroup there? Why shouldn’t we be as worried about Central Africa and Al-Qaeda’s presence there? What’s your response to that?
MORELL: So right now, the places I’m most worried about are ISIS in Africa and al-Shabab in Somalia. But longer term, I worry most about Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and- and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Why? Because at the end of the day, the most important thing that- that a terrorist group can have the most important determinant of their success is safe haven. Right? And- and you have safe haven in Afghanistan that you really can’t have anywhere else because you’re being harbored now by the Taliban. And Afghanistan is a big place. It’s tough to get to. It’s tough to find partners. We just heard about that earlier in the show. So that’s why I worry more about Afghanistan.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So are we more at risk than without the military presence there?
MORELL: We are more at risk, without a doubt, because we haven’t yet, as we heard from Representative Kinzinger, we haven’t yet put together a strategy for how we’re going to do the two things. So one, right, is to collect that intelligence that I talked about. The intelligence community’s got to figure that out. Then the Department of Defense has to figure out this over the horizon capability, right? So when the intelligence community says, Mr. President, they’re rebuilding again, they’re getting to the point where they can attack the homeland again. And the president says, take action. The military has to be able to reach in and degrade Al-Qaeda, right? We haven’t figured those two things out yet.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And- and on that point, over the horizon, it’s just a euphemistic word for flying in drones and planes from far away. So you had this drone strike that now the New York Times and The Washington Post is raising questions about. This was to target some of the members of ISIS who killed US troops and over 100 Afghans just a few weeks ago. So, did we actually kill the person intended and if we didn’t, doesn’t that show that over the horizon has some problems?
MORELL: So, so- so this wasn’t over the horizon, right? This- this was done with assets in Afghanistan. You’ve got to remember that–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Assets still in Afghan?
MORELL: Yes. You know what happened here, it needs to be investigated. And I would hope that the administration, once it does the investigation that it tells all of us publicly exactly what happened and if we made a mistake, why. You know, President Obama was very strong on being open about making mistakes with drone strikes. And I think this administration needs to do the same.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And that’s a question for the Pentagon, or that’s a question for the CIA?
MORELL: It’s a question for the White House.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The Secretary of State will sit for questions tomorrow. For the very first time the administration is going to have to explain this chaotic withdrawal. You hear about the Taliban effect, that jihadis looked at this, looked at American troops exiting and said, it’s possible that they are inspired by this. How much should we be concerned about that now?
MORELL: I think that the Taliban winning the war in Afghanistan and then the way our exit happened has absolutely inspired jihadists all over the world. The Taliban is saying we just didn’t defeat the United States. We defeated NATO. We defeated the world’s greatest military power ever. So there’s a celebration going on. We defeated the Soviet Union. Then it fell. Now we’ve defeated NATO. Right? Maybe they can fall, too. I think not only will jihadists be inspired, but a lot of them are going to come to Afghanistan to be part of the celebration, to be heart- to be part of jihadist central. So after 9/11, they are scattered from Afghanistan. I think we’re going to see a flow back in, and that’s one of the things that makes Afghanistan more dangerous than other spots on the planet.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We will keep an eye on it. Mike Morell, thank you for your analysis. We’ll be right back.