The Briefer: Ex-CIA No. 2 on Syria crisis

In his first TV interview, CIA veteran Mike Morell gives insight into closed door meetings with President Obama about Syria's civil war

The following script is from "The Briefer" which aired on Sept. 15, 2013. The correspondent is John Miller. Producers Ira Rosen and Gabrielle Schonder.

Every day in the Oval Office, the president gets a classified intelligence briefing. For the last year, an important part of that briefing has been the bloody civil war in Syria. The No. 2 man at the CIA, Mike Morell was a key voice in those meetings.

After 33 years in the CIA, there may be no one in Washington with as much experience in briefing presidents on complex security issues facing the United States. Morell retired from the CIA just six days before the chemical attacks in Syria. In his first television interview he told us what the war in Syria means to an already brittle region -- why it matters to the security of Americans at home.

John Miller: In the broadest sense, where is this Syria thing going to take us?

Mike Morell: I'm concerned because I fear the breakup of the state of Syria, collapse of the central government, sectarian warfare, opportunity for al Qaeda to have a safe haven in Syria that is not dissimilar to the safe haven that it once enjoyed in Afghanistan and once enjoyed in the FATA.

John Miller: In your briefings with the president on Syria, did you discuss that possibility with him?

Mike Morell: Yes, that was shared with the president.

John Miller: And what was his response to that picture?

Mike Morell: He takes that very seriously. And certainly agrees that that is an outcome that is possible and needs to be avoided.

As deputy director of the CIA, Mike Morell was in charge of the day-to-day operations of the agency. He oversaw thousands of spies and analysts, who formulate the very intelligence that's applied to decisions involving the prevention of terrorist attacks to the formulation of foreign policy.

John Miller: The secretary of state has said that there's an al Qaeda influence among the rebels in Syria, but it's a small percentage. And that the overarching group of rebels are looking for a moderate government. Has he miscast that?

Mike Morell: The two groups that are in some way affiliated with al Qaeda -- al-Nusra and then Ahrar ash-Sham -- are the two most effective organizations on the battlefield. And because they're so good at fighting the Syrians some of the moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them to fight the Syrians.

The end of the civil war in Syria could offer one of two bad outcomes: a stronger more brutal Assad regime or a rebel government influenced by al Qaeda.

John Miller: I've spoken to intelligence analysts who have said an uncomfortable thing that has a ring of truth, which is the longer this war in Syria goes on, in some sense, the better off we are.

Mike Morell: Yeah. So I disagree with that. The best outcome is a negotiated settlement between the opposition and between the regime that allows for a political transition that keeps the institutions of the state intact.

John Miller: How realistic is that?

Mike Morell: The reason that is important, John, is because it's going to take the institution of the Syrian military and the institutions of the Syrian security services to defeat al Qaeda when this is done. And every day that goes by, every day that goes by, those institutions are eroded.

John Miller: So how do you more effectively influence that?

Mike Morell: Right now, Assad feels he's winning, so he has absolutely no incentive. So, enough support has to be provided to the opposition-- to put enough pressure on Assad-- to bring him to the negotiating table, but not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don't need to go to the negotiating table. It's a very difficult balance to strike.

John Miller: Is that more or less support than is being provided now?

Mike Morell: I think it's more.

John Miller: One of our reporters was just there and toured a rebel weapons depot and they said, "You know, the stuff we've gotten is old, it's outdated, it's not enough. We're not really getting support." Are we in this? Are we not in this? Do we need to be in it more?

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