Ex-CIA official: "Frightening" similarity to pre-9/11 era

Former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell said that today's threat environment from terrorists mirrors the pre-9/11 years in a way that he finds "frightening."

"For me who lived through the pre-9/11 years there's a similarity here that's a bit frightening to me," Morell said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. "You have a group who says it wants to attack us, just as[Osama] bin Laden said he wanted to attack us, you have them building that capability just as bin Laden built it, we don't have great visibility into that capability, just as we did not do then."

Additionally, Morell said the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has "the single most important advantage" in the form of a safe haven in Iraq and Syria.

"We just had a major attack overseas, embassy bombings in 1998, Paris now, that should be a wake up call. The similarities are very concerning," he said.

Tom Donilon, President Obama's former National Security Advisor, said the situation is "different and even more complicated" than it was before the 9/11 attacks.

"We have seen a systemic breakdown of state authority in the Arab Middle East which has allowed these large swaths of ungoverned territory to emerge into which these groups have filled the vacuum. That's a different circumstance in terms of the amount of space that that these groups have to operate from," he said. "One of the lessons of course out of 9/11 is that giving these groups operational space like they had in Afghanistan is a dangerous thing to do for us."

He also noted that the pool of potential terror recruits is much larger than what al Qaeda had, and the speed with which ISIS has grown and organized itself is "substantially faster than al Qaeda."

"We are in a new and more dangerous place," he said, reflecting on the number of attacks for which ISIS has claimed responsibility in recent weeks.

Frances Townsend, who was the Homeland Security Advisor to former President George W. Bush, argued that recent weeks have shown that President Obama's strategy of defeating ISIS in Iraq before defeating them in Syria will not work.

"What you're seeing is the global threat is emanating out of Syria. You must have a Syria first policy in order to disrupt the global threat and I think that that is really now underscored by the emanation of this threat," she said.

But she also said that in order for the U.S. to revitalize and intensify its strategy to fight ISIS, the president would have to acknowledge that the current strategy is failing - something he has not done.

Donilon said it is "critical" for the U.S. to "break the narrative of success" that ISIS has had by securing a few victories against the group, including taking out their capital in Raqqa, Syria.

Morell: Al Qaeda is just as dangerous as ISIS

"We have to put pressure on them in the safe haven and shrink the safe haven. That's lesson learned number one of defeating al Qaeda in South Asia. Lesson number two is you've got to remove the leadership in rapid succession," Morell said.

But he also acknowledged that it will be difficult for the U.S. to do everything it can to prevent another 9/11-style attack.

"The lesson learned of 9/11 was, can we as a nation act before we get attacked?" Morell said. "That is very difficult. President Roosevelt could not bring the American people along to intervene in World War II until we were attacked in Pearl Harbor so it is very difficult for a president to bring a nation along to say 'let's act now to disrupt what we know is going to happen.'"

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.