Defenders At Risk
How Blame Games Are Costing Spy Agencies
Recently we were able to see in a painfully visible way the impact of today's climate in Washington on the ability of the nation's intelligence services to defend us. Rather than go through what promised to be a painful and distracting public confirmation process, Phil Mudd withdrew his name from consideration to be the undersecretary of homeland security for intelligence and analysis. If he had been confirmed, Phil would have followed the iconic figure of Charlie Allen, another CIA veteran, in a post charged with some of the most important work in the American intelligence community -- being a key interface between national capabilities and the needs of our state and local defenders and first responders.
Phil Mudd is a thoroughgoing intelligence professional, a career CIA analyst with superb credentials and extensive experience in the counterterrorism mission. As deputy director of national intelligence in 2005, I thought so highly of Phil that I personally pressured him to leave the CIA and his comfort zone there to take on a challenging new task as deputy head of the FBI's fledgling National Security Branch. Phil's task there was to dramatically expand the office and move the FBI's forensics-based and law enforcement-focused analysis toward a true intelligence function -- predictive, disruptive and working the "spaces between cases." This was no mean task in an organization whose dominant culture was law enforcement, whose historical legacy was catching criminals and whose core professionals wore badges and carried guns.
But Phil thrived. He earned the respect of the broader FBI and tirelessly moved his workforce toward the mainstream of the intelligence community. Along the way he also became knowledgeable of and accepted by American law enforcement officers at all levels of government -- attributes that Charlie Allen did not have when he moved to the Department of Homeland Security and attributes that would have enabled Phil to tighten the linkage between local needs and national capacities. A national intelligence professional with credentials among federal and local law enforcement officers, Phil was made for the DHS job.
It will not be. Rather than go through the gantlet that we call the confirmation process, Phil decided to skip what he feared would be a "circus." The blogosphere had already begun to light up with commentary about his unsuitability for the post. His sin? Phil had been the deputy director of CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center and its chief analyst at the height of the agency's counterattack against al-Qaeda -- those first years after Sept. 11, 2001, when the agency felt it had to use all the tools at its disposal to learn more about and eventually disrupt follow-on al-Qaeda attacks. Phil's personal involvement in the most controversial tactics was no more than "modest engagement," but he was conscientiously tasking all possible sources of information and faithfully connecting the dots as everyone expected him to do.
As he made the rounds of Hill staffers and was told that this aspect of his past, rather than his credentials for the proposed post, would probably become the focus of his hearings, he calmly (and wisely) said no. He would not become the "meat in the sandwich," being badgered to answer what was his definition of torture, or whether he agreed with President Obama's description that this had been a dark period in our history, or with the former vice president's assertion that hundreds of lives had been saved, or with the speaker of the House's judgment that they "mislead us all the time" or with my public statements that the CIA interrogation program produced valuable intelligence. Beyond what personal psychic costs such an inquiry would impose, Phil would simply not feed the partisan beast and create yet more distractions for the community he loved and served. And so the republic will do without the officer clearly most qualified to fill the head intelligence position at DHS.
Phil's fate is symptomatic of a larger and even more troubling reality. A whole swath of intelligence professionals -- the best we had, the ones we threw at the al-Qaeda challenge when the nation was in extremis -- are suffering for their sacrifice, being held up to recrimination for many decisions that were never wholly theirs and about which there was little protest when we all believed we were in danger.
During our Civil War, in the fog of battle, the best officers would lead their men to the "sound of the guns." It was a simple way to deduce where you were needed most. People like Phil Mudd went dutifully to the "sound of the guns" after Sept. 11, and elements of the republic they selflessly served are now prepared to punish them for it. And it seems that few are willing to defend them. The White House issued a short, pro forma statement of regret at Phil's decision, and the Director of National Intelligence, the nation's senior intelligence officer, offered no public comment. Phil's veteran colleagues in the counterterrorism fight are now drawing their own conclusions about their work and their futures. Even more important, those officers coming after Phil and his generation, the products of that massive post-Sept. 11 hiring surge, are surely looking hard and taking notes.
Phil was a visible casualty of today's atmosphere. There are other losses less visible. Pray that the safety of the republic is ultimately not among them.
The writer was director of the CIA from 2006 until February.