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The Insider

A former CIA and FBI officer takes us through more than two decades of U.S. intelligence.

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Last week, the topic on the news network MSNBC was personal privacy versus national security, and Philip Mudd was on-air to say: "The question is: Are you comfortable with what your government is doing? And if you're not comfortable, tell your congressman. I think this debate is healthy."

Days later, the topic on Charlie Rose was Edward Snowden, and Philip Mudd was on-air to repeat the point and weigh in on the Snowden controversy: "I find the debate ... fascinating: What is privacy in the 21st century? But let me tell you something ... the 10,000th young person who [wants to say to] the inspectors general, the FISA court, the lawyers at the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA, 'I'm a contractor, I know better, I'm the savior for your America' ... I don't find that very interesting. ... I'm not particularly interested in this guy's life story."

Charlie Rose followed that up by saying he was interested in Edward Snowden's life story. But who is Philip Mudd? What's his story? What's he doing on MSNBC and Charlie Rose in the space of a few days, in addition to appearances weeks ago on C-SPAN and once again on Charlie Rose?

For more than two decades, Mudd was an intelligence analyst at the CIA and FBI. Mudd's specialty was South Asia and the Middle East, and he had a major hand in the intelligence briefings handed every morning to President George Bush. He's held senior positions at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center. He's served on the White House National Security Council and as deputy director of the FBI's National Security Branch. He's worked alongside CIA director George Tenet and FBI director Robert Mueller. And in 2009, Barack Obama nominated him to be head of intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security — a nomination he withdrew from before confirmation hearings took place.

By 2010, Mudd was ready for a change. He resigned from government service. And today, he's at SouthernSun Asset Management as director of global risk. His office is in East Memphis, but he lives in Midtown. Which is why, if you catch Philip Mudd being interviewed on TV via satellite, in the background is often a picture of downtown Memphis.

To return to that question, though: What's Philip Mudd's story? He tells it — the professional side of it — in Takedown: Inside the Hunt for Al Qaeda (University of Pennsylvania Press), and Memphians have a chance to meet with the author when Mudd is at the Booksellers at Laurelwood to discuss and sign his book on Thursday, June 20th, starting at 6 p.m.

Don't go into Takedown looking for bombshells, though. No settling of old scores. Readers will even be hard-pressed to figure out Mudd's political learnings, because politics wasn't Mudd's job at the CIA and FBI. Fact-finding was. So, do read Takedown for an inside look at intelligence gathering: the pressures, the ethics, the personalities, the valuable findings, and the dead-ends among the mountains of data arriving daily.

Two weeks before news broke of the NSA leaks and the man behind those leaks, the Flyer sat down with Philip Mudd inside his office to talk about his book and the terrorist threat to the U.S. What follows are some highlights of what he had to say.

Flyer: Having left government service, are you surprised at the perspective of ordinary Americans when it comes to terrorism or the threat of it?
Philip Mudd: I'm not surprised. I'm curious. First, the political divides on what I see as an apolitical issue are interesting. Everything is politicized in this country. I do think some of the negativity about Islam and Muslims is, to be blunt, disappointing.

It's not uncommon when I go on TV for me to get hate mail, and some of it is pretty vitriolic. It's not disturbing. It's not threatening. But as an American who believes all of us have a place here — most of us are immigrants, all of us have a responsibility to integrate, all of us still live in a segregated society, including Memphis — it doesn't reflect the best of what America should be.

To get hate mail when I say that terrorism is about murder and the hate mail says it's not about murder: That's disappointing, and it's not uncommon. People say to me: "You're afraid to say these are Muslims, this is about a religion, and Islam is the enemy." I'm paraphrasing, because some of what I get is ugly and sometimes illiterate.

My answer to them is: I'm not afraid of anything, including you. What I'm afraid of is that Americans start to believe that some Americans are true Americans and some aren't because of the color of their skin or what religion they represent.

As an analyst, I deal with facts, and the fact is that increasingly the people who commit acts of terrorism, who claim to be representing a religious viewpoint, are not very smart about their own religion. They're emotional. They have some beef about something. But their understanding of the ideology, the theology they claim to represent ... these kids — they're mostly youth — don't know what the hell they're talking about, so if they're that ignorant, how can that be a representation of a religion?

And like you just said, for the word "terrorists," you'd rather we use the word "murderers."
I've sort of lost that argument, but what I tell folks is: I'm not here to apologize for terrorists. But as someone who has analyzed them, I know how terrorists talk about their own vulnerabilities. If your adversary is defensive, that means they have a vulnerability. The adversary is not defensive about terror. They view terror in very clear terms. So if you want to call them terrorists, they're going to say: That's fine. That's what I am.

But the adversary can't explain the murder of innocents, so my view would be: Don't call me an apologist. I'm a harder-ass than you are, because I've studied what the vulnerability of the adversary is, and I want to turn it against them. I want to call them murderers, because they can't defend murder. They can only defend terror to themselves and to the people they recruit.

When those bombs went off in Boston, what were your first thoughts?
I thought a couple things: First, I couldn't figure out what the purpose of the target was. That told me that these guys are not the "pros from Dover," because you should be able, with a really professional terrorist operation, to understand instantly who did it.

The second impression I had was based on looking at the characteristics of the operation — from the nature of the device to the lack of planning what to do afterward. And I was interested in watching the media characterize this as a tragic event, which it obviously was, and somehow connect the number of casualties to "sophistication."

As a counterterrorism person in an old life, I looked at all of it and wanted to say: Tell me one part of this that was sophisticated. Nothing was. They picked the softest target ever with an easy-to-create device. They didn't conceal themselves. They didn't appear to have external funding. They didn't have an after-action plan. Nothing.

You've also gotten flak for saying that terrorism should not be a chief concern among Americans.
They think it's an apology for terrorists. And I tell 'em, let's deal with facts. Let me define what I think security is or lack of security: things that affect the lives of Americans, that affect children, parents — things that have the ability to make their lives worse. And I look at Memphis, for example: violent crime, theft, gang activity, drugs. Now look strictly at the numbers — for example, death by handguns — and you compare that to the loss of life and destruction of society or family by terrorism.

I'm a counterterrorism guy. I spent decades doing that stuff, and my cold analysis is pretty simple. If you accept the definition that says we ought to be most worried about things that have the greatest prospect to disrupt life, then terrorism is not on your list. Terrorism gets a lot of press, because it's news, it's inexplicable. But in terms of gross impact on American life, it's a blip, unless we let it not be a blip, and that's one reason I think people should talk less about terrorism.

Every conversation we have about it and the success of a strike tells someone that they can have an impact on our lives if they stage an event.

My answer is: no. We're going to grieve, then we're going to sweep up the glass and move on and that's it.

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