An intelligence expert for the CIA and FBI slows it down and makes Memphis home.
I’m not going to say there wasn’t pressure, but I don’t think it was as overwhelming as people think. It’s about how you deal with it,” Philip Mudd said in a recent interview of his serving as an intelligence analyst for more than two decades in Washington, D.C. Then he added:
“When I came down here to Memphis back in the fall to talk to Michael Cook, CEO of SouthernSun Asset Management, one of the things he asked me to do was talk to the boys at Presbyterian Day School.” Mudd remembered, oddly enough, feeling the pressure of that assignment. “There must have been several hundred boys there, ages 6 to 11. I’ll tell you, talking to that range of ages and making it engaging . . . I thought more about that talk than I sometimes did about congressional testimonies.
Describing pressure as self-imposed, Mudd added, “If you go into a congressional briefing and you’re going to crack, it’s not necessarily the environment or the fact that senators aren’t happy with you. It’s because you cracked. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m saying you can teach yourself over time to deal with it. Pressure is not my thing.”
It isn’t now, now that Philip Mudd is director of global risk at SouthernSun. And it wasn’t then — back when, in the aftermath of 9/11, Mudd was on the ground early in Afghanistan and acting as CIA liaison to diplomat James Dobbins. And it wasn’t back in 2003, when Mudd was working with CIA director George Tenet on the speech that Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered to the United Nations before America’s entry into Iraq.
Or back in 2009, when President Barack Obama asked Mudd to head intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security.
Mudd ended up declining the president’s offer, but his decision wasn’t made in the face of the tough grilling he was sure to get from congressmen during the confirmation process, and it wasn’t made because of the interest in what Mudd knew of the CIA’s rendition and detention of suspected terrorists. As Mudd said of the matter:
“The committees conducting the hearings were putting out the word that these hearings are going to be ugly. My personal view was: Okay, you want ugly, let’s bring it. But my professional view was: I’ve never even met the president. He had the courtesy to nominate me for a job. The appropriate way for me to think was: I don’t want to embarrass the guy. I don’t want to deflect from whatever else he’s got going on. I don’t want the president’s office to have to defend somebody they don’t even know. That didn’t seem right.
“So, it was the right decision,” he said. “I have no regrets about pulling out. I’d been ‘game on, let’s go.’ But I knew it wasn’t going to be appropriate for me to go through a hearing process that I think would have been front-page news and with the president saying, ‘I don’t know this guy. How did this happen?’ So I thought, I’ll pull out. But that appointment would have been a life-changing experience. You know the prospect of it happening again is not high. I’d say it’s near zero.”
And what were the chances, back in 1985, that Philip Mudd would join the CIA as a neophyte intelligence analyst? One would think those chances weren’t high either, maybe near zero.
As Mudd relates in the opening pages of his memoir, Takedown: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda (University of Pennsylvania Press), he left the University of Virginia with a master’s degree in English literature and stepped into work in Bethesda, Maryland, for a small newsletter publishing company. (“Not much of a career, wearing my dad’s old suits, wide 1970s lapels and all . . . and making $13,500 a year.”) But when a friend of his father’s saw an employment ad in The Wall Street Journal, Mudd’s father called his son to suggest he answer it. The CIA was growing rapidly under Reagan. It needed people. So Mudd, age 23, responded to the ad the only way he knew how: by driving in his worse-for-wear Chevrolet Chevette to the guard station of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, with résumé in hand. A résumé for what? Mudd didn’t even know. His knowledge of the CIA was limited to what he’d read in books or seen in movies. But the guard redirected Mudd to an anonymous building across the Potomac from Georgetown. He dropped off his résumé with a secretary, who told him they’d be in touch.
To Mudd’s surprise, they got in touch a few weeks later. Interviews followed. And to the question of there being convicted felons in the family, Mudd answered honestly. Yes, his great-great-grandfather was Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln and jumped to the stage of Ford’s Theater.
The CIA’s investigation of Mudd’s background continued into 1985, the year that Mudd himself felt like a felon after he was photographed, fingerprinted, and put in a holding cell in rural Maine. He’d been stopped and arrested on July 4th by a police officer during a spur-of-the-moment road trip with his brother. The charge: misdemeanor speeding, driving without a valid registration, and evading an officer, who claimed to have been in pursuit of the speeding car. Mudd was freed on bail and by mail pleaded no-contest. End of story.
But seemingly no end to the CIA’s clearance program, which took nine months of psychiatric evaluations, polygraphs, and interviews with Mudd’s close friends and neighbors. But he passed clearance eventually. The big question for Mudd once the CIA hired him for a job in intelligence: What is an intelligence analyst? And what do they do all day?
Nearly 25 years later, after various positions at the CIA and the FBI, Takedown tells you. But is the book a tell-all? Is it full of secrets that can only now be revealed? Is it politically motivated? Is it a chance for Mudd to settle old scores? No, on all counts.
It is, according to the book’s preface, the story of what Mudd saw — “one bit of history that might help create a mosaic among hundreds of thousands of other stories, and just one angle on a complex counterterrorism campaign that is now into its second decade and that has defined the U.S. intelligence community and U.S. foreign policy.”
A snapshot then: “one slice of what it’s like to be on the ground floor of something so big that no single person will ever see or understand all the angles.”
Mudd may have started on the ground floor, but he didn’t stay there. In addition to James Dobbins and George Tenet, he’s worked during tense times with demanding company (Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, FBI director Robert Mueller). But he’s unfailingly enjoyed the experience: putting his analytic (and writing) skills into the President’s Daily Brief on that morning’s intelligence findings; digging through mountains of incoming data for the day’s “threat matrix” (much of that data, in Mudd’s words, “trash” or “junk”); supplying Washington policymakers and the media with the information they needed; and, most important, anticipating a terrorist event on U.S. soil and when the possibility of such an event is uncovered, asking: What does it mean? Who’s behind it — higher-ups, sleeper cells, or one-off plotters? And, critically, what do we not know?
The list of Mudd’s government service is long — too long to review here — but it includes leading positions at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, the White House National Security Council, and the FBI’s National Security Branch. He still acts as a member of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Group and is on the advisory board of the National Counterterrorist Center. But these days, he’s also a Memphis midtowner and happy to be one. And he couldn’t be more satisfied with SouthernSun, where he’s exercising his analytic skills and encouraging co-workers to exercise theirs. He’s also relieved just to be slowing down.
“This work is really interesting,” Mudd said of his new position. “And the people, from the CEO on down, are not only good at what they do, they’re fun. I like coming to work.
“We have a business to do, but we don’t want to be in New York. We want to sit back here, out of the hurly-burly, and reflect, slow down a bit. Work is part of life. It is not life.”
Memphis is also not Washington, D.C., which Mudd described as tight and tense, a city that operates on the mantra: More work hours means better hours.
According to Mudd, “More work hours isn’t better hours. It just means you don’t operate efficiently or you don’t delegate. So figure it out.
“I’m 51 years old. It’s hard to explain how different it is here in Memphis, but for me it’s like a new world. I get to learn a new world.”
A world that includes the city’s historic neighborhoods, its restaurants and coffee shops, its pace and politeness. Mudd picked up on the vibe immediately and said to himself: “This is cool.”
And to those Memphians who can’t see the forest for the trees, take it from a former intelligence officer who’s traveled the globe and known some serious situations:
“People ask me, ‘Why are you here?’ I feel like saying, ‘Well, why are you here?’ I’m here because I want to be.”