60 Minutes got a huge scoop this weekend (10/27/13)–the first-ever TV interview with Mike Morell, the man who just finished a long term as a high-ranking CIA official. But if you thought the CBS newsmagazine was going to pose some tough questions, think again.
From the introduction by CBS correspondent John Miller, viewers should have known this wasn't going to be a tough interview. Miller explained that Morell's tenure covered some key moments in US history, from the 9/11 attacks to the Obama era. And Morell wanted to talk–apparently about certain things more than others:
Mike Morell was deputy director of the CIA and gave us the only television interview he's ever done. He spoke to us, largely because he believes the very nature of the spy business keeps successes in the shadows, but often pushes failure into the bright lights.
Now, the reasons why Morell would want to do an interview shouldn't much matter–a journalist gets to raise questions regardless, especially ones about government "failures." But the CBS interview was more like a press briefing than an interview with a powerful figure who has never been asked questions by a TV journalist.
The segment started with Morell giving his views on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden:
MORELL: I do not believe he was a whistleblower. I do not believe he is a hero. I think he has betrayed his country.
MILLER: How serious a hit is that to national security?
MORELL: I think this is the most serious leak–the most serious compromise of classified information in the history of the U.S. intelligence community.
Finally, someone got a government official to say Snowden isn't a whistleblower!
And just why was this leak so serious?
MILLER: Because of the amount of it or the type?
MORELL: Mm-hm. The amount and the type.
Glad that pressing question could finally be answered.
Morell and Miller did explain that Snowden's leak of the CIA's budget was especially damaging–because "they could focus their counterintelligence efforts on those places where we're being successful":
MILLER: Kind of like handing over the playbook to the other team?
It's hard to know exactly why the public being aware of the CIA's intelligence budget is such a grave threat. But since the CBS interviewer seemed to agree with his subject, that's where things were left.
When asked if he would refer to US interrogation techniques as "torture" if they were used against Americans, Morell responded, "I actually, John, want to challenge you on the word torture"–challenge him on asking a question about the word, presumably, since Miller himself pointedly did not use the term to describe methods used by the US that clearly include torture. But Morell offered that some post-9/11 not-torture techniques "were inconsistent with American values." Miller seemed proud of that damage-controlling admission: "No top CIA official has ever said that before."
And then Morell went on to praise drone strikes:
This is a very precise weapon. Collateral damage is very low. It's not zero, I wish it was. But it is as close to zero as we have gotten with any weapons system in the history of this country.
Miller sets up that comment by noting that "the UN and others have said they have also caused hundreds of civilian fatalities"–which was about the most adversarial moment of the broadcast.
Morell admitted that the Iraq intelligence failures were a problem:
I think that my biggest mistake was not in scrubbing that analysis more closely…. What we really learned from that experience was that analysts need to think about their confidence level and to be very, very clear with policy makers about it.
That's not exactly an earth-shattering admission, and one that in a normal interview might elicit some followups. Why was the intelligence not "scrubbed"? Was there political pressure to reach certain conclusions? But on 60 Minutes, it was treated as a lesson learned.
Why was the interview set up this CIA-friendly way? It might have something to do with the interviewer.
John Miller is a longtime reporter. But he has had other jobs, too; in 2003, he left journalism to work for the LAPD, and then took a job as the assistant director of public affairs at the FBI, a job that involved managing "relations with the news media."
So perhaps Morell went to Miller and 60 Minutes for his first-ever TV interview because he knew what he was going to get.