Former Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center Philip Mudd: Enhanced Interrogation, Detainees and the Truth

Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash

Matty Kerr is co-creator with John Brancaccio of The Working Experience. He is also a filmmaker and published author. Listen to our podcast on iTunes and Spotify and visit our website: theworkingexperience.com for videos, merchandise and more. You can also find us on Facebook, Linked In, Instagram, and Twitter.

“They didn’t want me to say that we had detainees in Afghanistan. I’m like, we want to pretend that we didn’t have detainees in Afghanistan when there was an open investigation of a detainee who died in our custody? That made no sense to me.”

Philip Mudd is the former Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and the FBI’s National Security Branch. He appears regularly as a CNN commentator and lectures around the world on national security issues and is the author of Black Site, which details the CIA’s move from an intelligence organization to capturing and detaining suspected terrorists in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. He was at the center.

Mr. Mudd has a Master’s Degree in English Literature. In 1985 he was working as a copy writer in Washington DC when his dad told him that he had heard that the CIA was hiring so he drove over their headquarters in northern Virginia and dropped off his resume with a security guard. Someone named “Bob” called him a month later and he was hired. This turned into a twenty five year career with the Agency.

When I interviewed Mr. Mudd for The Working Experience I wanted to discuss his book and the events that led to him writing it. But I also wanted to know about how the CIA functions as an organization, the types of people who work there, how they arrive at decisions etc. As one would expect, the people who work there are very motivated, very smart, hard charging type A personalities. However, as Mudd made clear, that is not enough. When he interviewed people for positions, he looked for certain skills in the candidates that he felt best served the mission of the Agency. It is not enough to have knowledge of a certain area; a candidate needed to have the skill set to communicate and plan to use that knowledge effectively.

“Someone could have substantive knowledge of a specific subject area such as Mid East politics but not have the ability to communicate that knowledge. I’ve interviewed Harvard graduates who just couldn’t write.”

He told me, “Someone could have substantive knowledge of a specific subject area such as Mid East politics but not have the ability to communicate that knowledge. I’ve interviewed Harvard graduates who just couldn’t communicate effectively.”

He broke it down to five characteristics for success:

  1. Can you write? Can you write concise sentences with no more than one dependent clause and few adjectives?
  2. Can you speak? Can you speak clearly to room full of people who outrank you? Can you speak clearly without saying “Um” and “Like”?
  3. Can you work with people who you don’t like? Can you work in an environment in which you don’t respect someone but you can still get the job done?
  4. Are you passionate about what you do? Because if you’re not someone else is going to beat you.
  5. Can you think? And my definition of thinking is to be able to articulate what you think about a problem in 30 seconds with no “ums” and a clear point. Then you articulate the opposite in thirty seconds to make the mind elastic. Should we stay in Afghanistan? Should we get out of Afghanistan? Be able to argue both perspectives.

“Make the mind elastic”. We need to be flexible in our thinking, creative in finding solutions to problems. See the world through different lenses, be the outsider.

In Black Site, Mudd discusses the transition for the CIA into a military capacity for which it had very little experience. It was not a smooth transition. The CIA is not a law enforcement agency. They are, as the name states, an intelligence gathering agency. They have agents on the ground who gather information from sources in whatever country they are operating: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan etc. This information is then given to other entities, such as the executive and the military, to be acted upon accordingly. This is how policy is formed.

However, the CIA was now tasked with dealing with detainees. Previous to 9/11, building prisons and guarding prisoners was not the mission of the CIA. Mudd describes the transition to this new mission as “building the plane in the air”. This struck me as odd and unsettling. One would expect that an organization such as the Central Intelligence Agency would have every contingency, every option, mapped out and ready to go. One would expect the United States government, with all its resources and power, to know exactly how to respond to this crisis.

This was not the case. From what Mudd wrote in his book and from what we discussed during the podcast, “Ad hoc” is not an inappropriate way to describe the roll out of the CIA’s detention program. Prisons, or black sites, we made of plywood and cinder block. The agents had no training in dealing with detainees; there was little in the way of medical staff to deal with any health issues. The agents were left virtually on their own to try and figure it out.

This had tragic consequences. Mudd recounts the details related to the death of one of the first suspected terrorists taken prisoner and held at one of the CIA’s black sites.

“The guy died of hypothermia. They left him short chained in a cell in Afghanistan and he froze to death overnight. That wasn’t purposeful. But, to your point about organizations initiating large programs we should have done more…sitting back and saying we need a clean team to attack this, to look at the path we are going down in terms of interrogations and detentions, to attack where it can go wrong. That’s one of the many things I look back on and say we could have done better on kicking the tires from the outside. But man, there wasn’t a lot of time. We captured a guy one day and then you’re like what are we gonna do with this guy?”

One would think that an organization like the CIA would have the answer to that before they captured “the guy”. But the CIA is made up of human beings; fallible human beings who sometimes do not know what they are doing. This is an unsettling thought but it is the reality. What they did not give due consideration to was having an outsider looking in. They did not have the “clean team” asking questions and probing for weaknesses. They had become, as many organizations do, insular and territorial. As has been made evident during the past year, sometimes the institutions into which we place great faith: the police, the CDC, the government, do not know what to do in response to a crisis. They are made up of fallible human being who are trying to figure it out, “building the plane in the air”, trying to understand the facts and devise an appropriate plan. And they make mistakes. Moreover, they are very resistant to any outsiders examining their practices and rendering judgements. The atmosphere after 9/11 was very tense. People wanted results. We were united in a common cause but those feelings can tend to, as Mudd put it, “fray”. Over time, when tempers begin to cool, questions start to be asked methods; people will be held accountable.

“I think all of us knew that the Program would be exposed one day and that it would be controversial. I tell you we were naïve I think on what happened with the Congress and how quickly they backtracked and what they said. There’s a lot of bad blood over time about what the Congress said about what we did.”

Once the “enhanced interrogation program” or torture of the detainees became known, no one wanted to be held responsible. In the world of politics, one is well-advised to watch their back.

“You also talked about “getting paper”. Can you expand on that?”

“Washington is a dog eat dog place. And even when there is national unity there is recognition that the CIA is an easy place to blame. It does not have a lot of supporters across the country; it’s not like the military or law enforcement. Many of us knew if we don’t A. Have legal authorization for everything we do and B. Have on paper who was involved: The Department of Justice, the White House, and also Congress. That when the reckoning comes we need to be able to say we recognize people don’t like what we did, we all knew that there would be disagreement about what we did, but this is how we considered the law, this is the written interpretation of the law we got from The Department of Justice, this is how on paper we executed that and here’s the people in Washington who signed it.”

Of course, no one in Washington wants all of this aired publicly. That is the nature of organizations. There is no upside to releasing information.

“They didn’t want me to say that we had detainees in Afghanistan. I’m like, we want to pretend that we didn’t have detainees in Afghanistan when there was an open investigation of a detainee who died in our custody? That made no sense to me.”

The man died because no one was asking the hard questions, such as, “Should the United States be holding detainees? Should the United States be torturing detainees?” When public opinion started to turn and the hard questions started being asked, those in our government who approved these programs were more concerned about covering themselves than taking ownership of their decisions and mistakes. It is very disturbing to know that the people leading our nation are willing to hang each other out to dry when the truth becomes inconvenient.

But we, the American people, are complicit. We let it happen because we wanted justice. So be it. But we have to own that.

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Co-creator and cohost of The Working Experience Podcast. We explore what people do for work, how they do it and how they feel about it. Twice a week!

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Matty Kerr

Matty Kerr

Co-creator and cohost of The Working Experience Podcast. We explore what people do for work, how they do it and how they feel about it. Twice a week!

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