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The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s fight against terrorism – Book Review

The Great War

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Take any important issue in our times; the average person on the street is likely to have a strong opinion about it, one way or the other. Whether it’s terrorism, the Edward Snowden leaks and fears of tyranny at the hands of Big Brother, or even drone strikes, these are issues that have the potential to spark controversy. However, it is useful to peek into what the people at the helm of affairs have to say about all this i.e. the people whose job is to make decisions that affect pretty much every average person on the street.

One such position of power is the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Micheal Morrel served in the CIA for over 30 years. A career intelligence officer, his experience in the top tiers of the US intelligence community makes him well placed to have an ‘insider view’ of how power works in Washington. Morrel has been dealing with the problem of terrorism since the 1990s and has served both the Bush and Obama administrations in influential positions.

The world is not black and white. It is always tempting to lay the blame for all the problems in the world at the feet of those that we hold responsible for fixing them.

Whether it’s back channel diplomacy with dictators in the middle-east or dealing with a national crisis such as 9/11 while trying to maintain his family life, Micheal Morrel has been there and done that. The bit about (failing) attempts to maintain some semblance of a family life brings the reader closer to the author. He’s just a guy, like the rest of us, trying to find that elusive work life balance that makes him happy.

Some of the instances he narrates when his work tramples upon his time with his family are actually very comical and relatable. A phone call by the boss in the middle of his daughter’s birthday celebration is something we don’t have to be spymasters to be able to relate to. Another reason why I found the book worth my money was how the author manages to bridge the gap that usually exists between the elite and the common man, the decision-makers and those affected by these decisions.

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Anti-elitist or anti-establishment sentiments are prevalent in these times and perhaps for good reason. The rise of the far-right in western countries is a symptom of the frustration among the masses with the status-quo. But people like Micheal Morrel are part of the ‘establishment’ and have an interest in maintaining this status-quo. What I found came to realize after reading the book was that people who are part of this ‘elite’ are all-too human and not so different from the rest of us.

Morrel has been dealing with the problem of terrorism since the 1990s and has served both the Bush and Obama administrations in influential positions.

Perhaps the only significant difference is that when they fail to do their job, it invokes the wrath of the public and the entire world at times. Morell defends the Central Intelligence Agency when some of its merited worldwide condemnation. The ‘enhanced interrogation programe’ or torture was most heavily criticized by the American public. Many consider it a blot on the nation’s history and the Agency’s history in particular. The author, however, argues that the programme was carried out under the legal framework approved by the representatives of the people.

The treatment of the CIA in the media after knowledge about torture techniques employed by the agency became public lead to significant decline in morale of agency staff. This brings us again to the fact that the people there are just trying to do their job as best as they can, a theme which the writer returns to again and again throughout the book. To his credit, Morrel accepts when his decisions were wrong and when courses of action taken by the Central Intelligence Agency as a whole were wrong.

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9/11 could’ve been and should’ve been prevented. The decision to go into Iraq in search of WMD’s was a catastrophe. It was US actions that led to the anarchy today in what used to be Libya. It was the author’s own actions as CIA’s deputy director that directly or indirectly lead to such disasters. The world is not black and white. It is always tempting to lay the blame for all the problems in the world at the feet of those that we hold responsible for fixing them.

The problem of terrorism that the US has been dealing with particularly since the first attack on the world trade center in 1993 is one example where those in the ‘establishment’ seem to have failed to do their job. Terrorist incidents increased significantly after the US declared its war on terror. But the value one finds in books like ‘The Great War of Our Time’ is that it presents the ‘insider’ perspective into why things are the way they are. When Gaddafi’s regime falls and the state of Libya disintegrates, it’s easy to lay all the blame at the CIA. But reality is a lot more complicated.


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