“Spying and Start-Ups” – with former Assistant Director of the CIA John Mullen
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of this secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now, sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
John Mullen: Honestly, in my 30 years at CIA, there were probably less than two handfuls of days I woke up and wasn't excited about going to work.
Andrew Hammond: This week's guest had a fascinating career that took him to six continents. After leaving the CIA, John Mullen was an entrepreneur, co-founding his own quantum computing company, and he now works for strategic intelligence company Strider Technologies as an executive vice president. In this week's episode, we discuss becoming addicted to adrenaline rushes while in the CIA, how growing up in Seattle made him cast his eye East to Asia and the Pacific, Chinese corporate espionage and the commonalities between being a CIA case officer and an entrepreneur.
Andrew Hammond: If you have enjoyed "SpyCast" in 2022, please consider leaving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. Guests this year have included ex-CIA director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; head of NATO intelligence, David Cattler; former head of the Colombian Navy, Admiral Wills; and former State Department intelligence chief, Ellen McCarthy. We work hard to bring you the best guests here on the podcast real spies listen to - "SpyCast." We hope you enjoy this week's show.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Well, I'm so excited to speak to you, John, and there's so much that I want to dig into. You've got such a rich and varied career. But the first thing that I wanted to ask - and I was thinking about this on the way driving in here this morning - when you're in the CIA, you're out in other countries, you're trying to recruit agents, you're trying to evade surveillance by hostile intelligence agencies quite often. It sounds like a lot of stress and a lot of drama. And I guess I just wondered what's more stressful - being a cyber executive entrepreneur, setting up your own company, or your time in government, out in the streets of other countries, trying to recruit and run agents?
John Mullen: Oh, easily startup - more difficult, more stressful. It's interesting you say that because, honestly, in my 30 years at CIA, there were probably less than two handfuls of days I woke up and wasn't excited about going to work. And I didn't feel stressed. I was certainly hyped - what I was doing. I think I became addicted to adrenaline rushes over the years, frankly, but - and you certainly had those in the private sector with startups.
John Mullen: But the difference is, when you're at CIA, you have professional logisticians, analysts, business specialists, accountants, everybody else doing all these little things for you - legal advisers, obviously. It's a team. And when you're in a startup, it's bare bones, and it's all on you. Everything from scheduling your own travel, to your hotel accommodations, to your bookkeeping, to finding the right kind of attorneys and others to help - it's all on you. There's no HR team. There's no point person, necessarily, when you're first starting to kind of ask to kind of take that on. So it's different.
Andrew Hammond: And do you think that there's any - you know, you set up your own company. Do you think that there's any commonalities between being an entrepreneur and being a CIA case officer? I mean, it seems to me, just from the outside, that being a case officer - sure, there's a structure and there's support, but you have to kind of grow your own network. You have to do your own legwork. You have to go out there and hustle and be entrepreneurial and connect and so forth at - yeah. How much commonality is there between both of those experiences?
John Mullen: A lot of commonality - common sense, personal drive, motivation, the idea to kind of have the logical framework about what your objective is and work back from that - say, what steps do I need to take to kind of achieve that objective, deal with problems as they arise, anticipate those to the extent you can, have a plan B mapped out to the extent you can and just follow through and execute? So it's very similar. And the personality type is, I think, in many ways, common. A successful personality type, I should say, is common.
Andrew Hammond: And just from your own network, do you know if that's quite a common thing to happen - for people to leave the CIA and start their own companies?
John Mullen: I do see a lot of former agency people doing it - sometimes just starting their own consulting services. Sometimes you get into technology. It depends on their background - their expertise. I am not what you call a software development genius by any stretch. I don't pretend to be. I'm not a quantum computing specialist. I'm not an edge computing specialist. I know intelligence. I had a degree in chemistry back in the day, so I've always been intrigued by quantum mechanics and the potential there for huge advances in quantum technology in the computing realm and what that may mean for national security and health care and other things.
John Mullen: But I think it's recognizing who you are, what your strengths are and playing to those, and understanding, when you're building a team in the private sector, the kind of people that are going to complement what you lack. 'Cause we all think that we're superstars. We're not. We have blind spots, weaknesses, areas where we think we can fake it, but not smart to ever do that. Admit the fact you don't know something and turn it over to the experts and have them advise you on it.
Andrew Hammond: And just on a couple of those terms that you mentioned there. So our audience ranges from people that just love a good old-fashioned spy story to people that are working the desk of one of the intelligence agencies, through to people that are in cyber and they're dipping a toe into SpyCast. So there's a few different audiences there. But just for the ones that are not up to speed with us, can you just - the Cliff Notes (ph) version. What is quantum and what is edge computing, just so we're not leaving anyone behind?
John Mullen: Sure. Quantum computing - the startup I'm involved in is just quantum-inspired computing. So we're not using huge, cryogenic devices to get ions or molecular articles down to absolute zero to kind of do these quantum calculations, which is true quantum. Quantum-inspired is taking digital technology - in our case, what we call a true digital icing machine - don't ask me to try and explain - that'd take the rest of the next hour...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
John Mullen: ...To get highly efficient and easily scalable solutions into the hands of commercial industry and others taken to quantum-like problem sets. So what that means is it's cheaper. It's easier to integrate with existing computer architecture. And it's greener. It doesn't require huge amounts of energy to get these systems down to absolute zero or some really cold state to kind of get these machines to work. So this has applications from everything from gaming, AR-VR, to banking/financial modeling to molecular modeling, which is designing pharmaceuticals, for example, without going through the trial of error and say, oh, yeah, we've got to tell you that you may take this for your eczema, but it may give you a heart attack in the process. I mean, it's easier to articulate as you go through this - the research - what may cause side effects and what doesn't and mitigate those with the design of the pharmaceutical you have in mind.
John Mullen: Edge computing is different. It's kind of an older technology. But when you think of the fact that the laptop you're probably looking into and the one I'm looking into right now has - the iPhones we use, the Samsung phones we use, any personal digital assistant, any mainframe has, at any given time, about 72% of its computing power not being used. The CPU - central processing units - in current modern computers are so powerful compared to what we had even 10, 20 years ago that they have extra bandwidth that's not being used. So what edge computing attempts to do is take that 70, 72% of computing power that's just sitting there and use it as you're doing your other work in the background to do calculations.
John Mullen: So, for example, we could provide an edge computing solution to a major bank. They could donate that computing power on all their mainframes and systems in their bank headquarters - say, in New York City - to a cancer research center that can't afford that. And the cancer research center can lend - borrow that computing power or that space in the background as the bank does all of its other businesses - do its research, and the bank gets a tax credit for it or, if they chose to do so, charge the cancer research center. That's just one tangible example. So it's got tremendous promise, not just in reducing the financial obligation that people incur when they try and look at developing big data solutions through big tech. It makes it far easier for researchers, Ph.D. graduates anywhere in the world to kind of log on and get their work done and not have to pay one of the big tech companies huge amounts of money. It's out of their reach to get that done.
Andrew Hammond: Mmm. Wow. And I feel like I've got a good understanding of edge computing. And, again, I don't want to get into quantum too much. But just - when you mention cryogenic and so forth, this is basically that, to do quantum computing, you need to have a very specialized set of conditions under which to do it, which involves a lot of capital, a lot of investment, a lot of work and a lot of energy.
John Mullen: That's very true. And a lot of people are working on it. And depending on who you talk to, we may not have a real quantum capability for eight years or so. Some say 15. Some say longer. Some say never. There are some optimists who say we'll have it imminently. I don't know who to believe there, exactly, but there are opinions all over the place. And we'll see. But quantum computing is not going to be a panacea. It can't solve all these problems. But certainly, in the national security realm - just to take one example - I mentioned molecular modeling for designer pharmaceuticals as one powerful example. Financial modeling is another. Take every conceivable scenario under the sun, economically, that could happen and kind of see how your investment may do. I mean, banks care about that, obviously. Investors care about that. But in the national security realm, it's got tremendous potential, both good and bad. So a lot of people are working on it from across a spectrum of industries to try and get there first.
Andrew Hammond: And for the, like, quantum computing, as I understand it - just for some of our listeners - basically, if you think about cryptography - so encrypting and decrypting messages and information, a quantum computer would just be able to do calculations on, you know, an order of magnitude way beyond even the most powerful computers just now. So basically, the takeaway would be that the most difficult code to break into would then become difficult - it would then become easier to get into. So this is why there's so much invested in national security and looking at this kind of problem. Is that correct?
John Mullen: That's correct. That's why you see various press announcements and articles about U.S. government entities getting ahead of this and encouraging industry to think of a post-quantum world and protecting their encryption schemes accordingly. So they're developing standards for that and doing good work in that realm.
Andrew Hammond: And just super briefly, before we move on, quantum mechanics - you said you studied that. Just for our listeners, again - like, what's a sentence on quantum mechanics? What is it? Why does it matter?
John Mullen: Well, I was taking it in a graduate chemistry course - an honors course my last year as an undergraduate. And it really hit me between the eyes when they said, look, you know, we talk about electrons being particles - part of a molecule, obviously - any molecule - holding a negative charge and getting into what they are. And you think of a finite, little dot, but they also behave like waves. There's something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle you roll into this. He said it's impossible - the more accurately you try and measure the state or position of an object - in this case, say, an electron - to do that perfectly because the very act of observation disrupts the state of the electron. So in short, with quantum computing, you don't have one and zero. You may have 6, 8, 10, 12 different possible solutions you could look at in real time. And the goal is finding the optimum solution and going with that. But we get into the realm of science fiction - people have been talking about it since at least 1962 in various sci-fi movies.
Andrew Hammond: I remember I used to love "Quantum Leap" as a kid.
John Mullen: Yeah, different parallel universes came out of "Star Trek" and all these shows you've seen over the years. That's carrying it to a real, perhaps, fantastical state. But the point is, it's fascinating. It's not easy to understand for we humans that are trained in logical, sequential thinking. But it holds untoward, undoubted promise for things like developing medications that can treat people without resulting in adverse side effects and things of this nature. So people are studying it for good reason.
Andrew Hammond: And just as we're moving on, it's really, really fascinating to me because, basically, as I understand it, it's saying that the world is not as static and linear and A leads to B and B leads to C. It's much more fluid and dynamic, which I find really, really fascinating. But we are so conditioned into viewing the world in a particular way that we struggle to get our heads around it.
John Mullen: That's very true. Well, we said at the outset this conversation, whether you're a case officer or an entrepreneur - or I can think of thousands of lines of work where this is also true - you plan for contingencies, but there are an infinite number of contingencies. So how do you kind of plan for all of them? It's impossible to do so, really. But you have to take the greatest likelihood of occurrences - situations that may arise - and kind of deal with those. That's the best we can do.
John Mullen: But when you think about a large, complex, diplomatic undertaking - economic initiative, military campaign, whatever - there are so many things that go into that. And it's so complex in exercise that, if you had somebody kind of looking at this for the contingencies and a machine capable of telling you this is what may arise - you may want to contemplate this; it's obviously why artificial intelligence is such a huge thing - it makes those a little more easy to kind of understand and plan for - not perfect. And then you have to trust the algorithms you built into these AI mechanisms in the first place and make sure that they're reflecting your own values and objectives and mores as you go into it. And so it holds both promise and potential peril. But anyway, it's all fascinating stuff.
Andrew Hammond: So you were 30 years in the CIA, you said. When did you leave the CIA and go into the field that you're currently working in?
John Mullen: Late 2015.
Andrew Hammond: 2015? OK. What's it like now that you're out? Do you still have days where you're like, I wish I was back on the job? Or are you like, that was a great part of my life. I'm glad it happened, and now I'm doing something different, and that's OK. Or do you have mixed feelings?
John Mullen: Mixed feelings. You know, I'll tell you, as I said earlier, I loved it. I really did. I didn't know what I was getting into when I first applied. I was 24 at the time, been working for a publishing firm, saw an ad in a newspaper for economic analysts. And I got degrees in chemistry and English, but I thought to myself, well, I'm not an economist. I have no idea what analysts in CIA do, but this sounds pretty cool. I think I'll apply. So there's no long-range, strategic plan to be an operations officer in CIA. It just happened.
John Mullen: So I went into it with some trepidation. And the first series of sit-down interviews I had - I had one in the Seattle area, just to start, with a very nice individual, who I'm indebted to for kind of seeing something in me that I didn't know I had. But I went back to Washington - the Washington area - for a series of interviews back in that year long ago. And five days before getting on an airplane for those interviews, I proposed to my wife. And I said, look, I think I'm going to be an analyst. My understanding is these jobs are all in the D.C. area, so it would require a move across the country. And the first interview was - so you want to be a case officer? I said, what? I said, I don't know what a case officer is. Explain that to me. I thought I was going to be an analyst. At any rate, there are two things to say there. One, I had to go back and re-recruit my wife. I had to go...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
John Mullen: ...And propose to her all over again.
Andrew Hammond: Twenty-two moves in 30 years (laughter).
John Mullen: Yeah. So it worked out. We've been married 37 years, happily, so - but the other thing to say about that is, I give the agency huge credit because, obviously, they have a method for selection of candidates for security and other reasons. But they really are intent on hiring the best possible people for certain roles. And they do such a good job of kind of looking into you and asking you questions, learning about you with personal interest surveys, aptitude tests, all the other things they go through. They have a pretty good feel for where you're going to be successful and enjoy it, and where you may be kind of successful, but maybe not enjoy it so much. So they kind of held a mirror up to me in that process of interviews and said, look, you can do whatever you want. If you want the analyst job that we discussed earlier, you can have it, but you may want to consider this. And I'm really grateful they did that. They asked hard questions, but they said, do whatever you want. They gave me an option. But if you want to enter into this program, you can do that. If you want to stay in this career track, you can do that. It worked out.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And I want to dig into your CIA a little bit more. But just to finish off with cyber - as someone that's been on both sides of it - you were in the CIA, and then you became a cyber entrepreneur. What do you think non-CIA people in cyber just don't really understand about the CIA? What's the thing that you come across quite often and you're just like, what - these people just don't get it?
John Mullen: I think...
Andrew Hammond: Is there anything?
John Mullen: Yeah, I think there is. I think it's the motivation and the objective. I don't blame a lot of people for having this very dark perception of CIA and what we do. They just don't know. And we're not in the business of advertising what we do. We never will be, and it defeats the purpose. But we are a democracy, and people need to know something. And I think the thing I would tell them is, anything we do - certainly, CIA has its share of mistakes over the years - things that didn't go right, things didn't go according to plan. But we do things within U.S. law - under the confines of U.S. law and the U.S. Constitution, and CIA officers that violate that are prosecuted for good reason. So we don't take kindly to people in our midst that may want to do something that is inimical to our values or our national interest or the Constitution or the laws and the bylaws and the policies we have to uphold and stand by.
John Mullen: But I think, getting back to your question, I think a lot of people probably think of CIA as doing the same kind of ransomware attacks and willy-nilly hacking that people around the globe do. We don't do that, OK? We're trying, just as we do with all the other INTs that we either do or support on the part of our IC partners - the goal here is to illuminate what we think is unknown or unclear to mitigate risk - mitigate risk to our economy, mitigate risk to lives - human lives, American lives and interests - and advance our cause around the world - the values that we hold so dear. So I think that's the biggest thing. And that sounds Pollyannish to some people. Some people choose not to believe it, but that's true. And when you go through the training and you go through things you learn over the course of years - how do you handle digital data about U.S. persons? I mean, there are procedures and protocols you have to adhere to. And if not, you're liable to be prosecuted. Nobody wants to face that. We take those things very seriously.
Andrew Hammond: And before we move on to your CIA career in more depth, just to leave off, when did cyber come on your radar, John? Were you already very much enmeshed and interested in this field before you left the CIA, or was it a road to Damascus conversion afterwards, or - I'm just trying to understand the timeline of you joining up and then 30 years in the CIA. When does it come on your radar, and when do you start to develop this interest in it?
John Mullen: I can point to the date. I won't give you the specific environment or surroundings. That's all quite sensitive still. But I had heard of it. I'd undergone training sessions about vulnerabilities and so on prior to that and what adversaries, criminals - whomever - can do on the internet - how you have to protect yourself and your data and whatnot. But it was really brought home to me on an assignment when I was the chief of station and we were involved in something where it really required knowing what the potential of this adversary was, the capabilities, and what they claimed to be doing. And then engaging with people back in the United States, looking at cyber defense and talking to them and kind of showing them that, in that particular instance, the confidence with which the ultimate protecting party had put forward said, we can block this. We're way - that turned out not to be true.
John Mullen: So we underestimated our adversaries to our own detriment sometimes. That was an example of that. But it really brought it home. It was gratifying to be part of an operation like that. But the point I'm making is there are experiences - unless you go through them, you can't really understand or appreciate the impact of this stuff. And I had one of those relatively early on in my career, and I'm grateful for that.
Andrew Hammond: So when you leave the CIA, you're the assistant director for the Asia-Pacific region. And you're over - it sounds like, I mean, it's a lot of responsibility because it's such a huge region - but all collection, technical support and analysis. So I just wondered, as I segue into your time in the CIA, was there any intentionality in appointing you to the specific geographic region? Had you spent a lot of time in Asia and the Pacific? Was that the place that you were known as a bit more of a specialist, then, or - yeah, how does this kind of thing work?
John Mullen: I was born and raised in the Seattle area. And I didn't have any immediate family members that worked at Boeing, but you can't live in Seattle - at least back when I grew up - and not see the installations and hear the stories about the production of B-29 bombers and everything else that went on and how the city was blacked out. They had Boeing factories under camouflage nets the outset of the war for fear of a Japanese attack on the mainland. People grew up with that. And these were my family members - my grandmother, grandfather, great uncle, and so on. The other part is, in terms of my wife and my family, we had two people killed in the Pacific Theater in World War II. And a great uncle of mine served in the Army Air Corps on Saipan and Tinian when the first atomic bomb was dropped.
Andrew Hammond: The bomb?
John Mullen: Yeah. So having these conversations with people that survived - not the ones, obviously, that I never met - and the family members of survivors - it's just such an impact. You know, the Asia-Pacific is always been a huge challenge. And you look at things that didn't go so well, right? I mean, we prevailed in the Korean War in terms of our political objectives. That was a bloody battle, and it proved that a land war in Asia is something no one ever wants to get into. You know, Vietnam kind of underscored that. As much as the original cause may have been noble, it's just a huge area. And I just thought that, given the economic dynamism out there, it's going to be the future. And I bet right.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. So you had always been Pacific-minded, growing up in Seattle?
John Mullen: Yeah. It's not that I didn't pay attention to what was going on in Europe or the Soviet Union...
Andrew Hammond: Sure.
John Mullen: ...At the time. I'm very interested in that. But it's just my background. It's just - that's where I was. And I just felt that sometimes we focus on other issues in the world. This is true at any stage, I think, as policymakers. And I give them credit. They have a lot to consider - a lot to work on at any given time. And these issues are extraordinarily complex. But the temptation to follow the shiny object is very great sometimes. And currently, the shiny object may be Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that is getting the attention it needs. I'm not suggesting it's getting too much. But the challenge is looking at other issues across the globe that could come back and bite us if you're not careful. And you have to maintain collection - a steady posture on that, with a policy that obviously is geared toward mitigating risk - not just the United States, but our allies - and advancing our interests.
Andrew Hammond: It's interesting that you say that about your family. I also have two great uncles who died in the war in the east. And one of them is buried in Yokohama, in Japan. He was captured at the fall of Hong Kong on Christmas Day, 1941. And the other one's buried in what's now Bangladesh, but I believe he was in the war in Burma. So I think it's kind of interesting to me that a couple of men from this small, rainy island in the northwest of Europe are buried so far from home. And one day I hope to go to visit their graves. But I think it's just a fascinating and huge theater, right? I mean, you can spend a whole lifetime and never really get your head around it.
John Mullen: Yeah. My wife's side of the family - my father-in-law's brother was killed in the Pacific theater in 1943 and was part of an Oregon National Guard that was called up, ultimately ingested in the 25th Infantry Division and literally killed at his foxhole. This was early in the war, when his unit ran out of ammunition - bayoneted to death and then shot. Nobody from the family, including my father-in-law, had ever visited his gravesite. He was buried in the U.S. Cemetery in Manila, in the Philippines. So we traveled there, borrowed a friend's camcorder, recorded it, and that was a very powerful moment. We took it home that summer and shared it to him. That's the first time that I'd ever seen his gravesite.
Andrew Hammond: That's what I'd like to do with my great uncles. As far as I know, no one with a blood connection has ever been to their graves. And I would like to do them both in the one trip. But, yeah, that's definitely going to happen, but it's not happening this year.
Andrew Hammond: And what was your favorite role out of all the ones that you had in the CIA? So case officer; the chief of station, the person that's in charge of the other case officers that are more junior; assistant director - you had a whole variety of different positions across the CIA and up and down the hierarchy. What really was your bag? If you could go back and have a week in one of the roles, which one would you go back to?
John Mullen: Boy, that's a hard question to answer.
Andrew Hammond: Sorry.
John Mullen: I'll just take each one in turn, OK? As an ops officer, I don't know if there's a better feeling professionally in the world than coming back on your homeward route after a meeting with a sensitive, clandestine source that you've met with - a person you're obligated to protect and see to his or her welfare - having just been provided detailed information you know is going to change U.S. policy or at least impact it and/or save American lives. That is such a rush. And you can't sleep that night when you get home because you're so eager to go in and write it up. That is a special feeling. And I know that the people you work with that get that intelligence prepared, disseminated properly, read, back-and-forth questions and follow-on requirements, go back and ask more questions - people share that. It is a genuine rush. You know you're having an impact. That is a special feeling.
John Mullen: The same holds true as a chief of station because you're overseeing people with, sometimes, a variety experiences - first two officers, some with more experience, some with managerial responsibilities. So you have to play the role of mentor, manager, supervisor and leader, and mind the p's and q's. Make sure that the quality of your work, the operational tradecraft, what you're focusing on in terms of intelligence production, is impactful - that you're not putting out things that are ancillary in terms of interest of the day. That's a challenge - more sophisticated challenge.
John Mullen: Assistant director - you're looking at a variety of countries in theater. You have to be proficient to a certain level and understanding what's going on - a bit about the histories and cultures, any interactions between those nations and their historical ties to the United States. So when you engage with foreign partners in a liaison capacity, obviously informed by judgments and intelligence and smart people around you - what to say, what not to say, and what to push them for in terms of what's needed for more cooperation or the advance of relationship. When they come to you with issues or problems or complaints, you have to listen to those and do your level best to address them quickly in a way that kind of allays their concerns.
John Mullen: So it's all dealing with people. The one common denominator, there - it's all about asking questions. And when I first came in, like most young people, I don't ask many questions. I think I know what - I thought I knew it all. But when you ask questions, you learn things about the individual and his or her motivations and their values that really provide elements of the solution that you have to kind of propose for going forward. And in each one of those roles, I learned the value of asking really good questions. So when you think you know something, keep asking for questions because there's always something else to uncover there.
Andrew Hammond: That experience that you first mentioned there, on the way home and being - you know, having the thrill of meeting a clandestine source and getting intelligence that will be useful for your country - it sounded to me a little bit like scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final, but you can't really, like, shout about it. You have to keep it to yourself and a few other people that are allowed to know about it.
John Mullen: That's very true.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
John Mullen: That's very true. And you know that going in. The more that you engage in that work, whether you're an operations officer or an analyst, a reports officer - whatever you do in CIA - if you're kind of around that activity, you realize that's a sacred trust. And that source - his or her welfare is in your hands. You'd better make sure you're professional about it, you mind p's and q's of the operational tradecraft you have to employ, be disciplined about, you know, how to speak about this, where you speak about it, where you keep the documentation, how you protect it, so on. It's paramount because, ultimately, it's not a piece of paper. It's a person's life at the other end that's really of value.
Andrew Hammond: And is this a little bit like it? Got me thinking that there's a war photographer whose work I really like, Don McCullin - and he speaks about the negatives, like, for the old wet-film cameras that he used to use. He kept them in shoeboxes under his bed, and he said that they almost - yeah, they kind of lived inside his soul - all of the images of the soldiers, the people in combat, people that are shell shocked, etc. Do you find yourself just sitting, reading the newspaper or sitting in the garden and then thinking about one of the sources that you worked with over the years? How - yeah, I guess I'm asking, how much do you still carry them around with you? Are they kind of at the back of your mind, or do they kind of float in and out? Or - yeah, help us understand.
John Mullen: Yeah. No, that's true - not in a haunting way, but some of these people you really like. You can't afford to become emotionally attached to them because you've got to be objective in whatever they're telling you or trying to tell you. And everybody's got biases you have to be aware of and sensitive to. But I got to tell you - some of these people you do get close to. And whether or not you're personally close as a friend, you're still concerned about their welfare. It's just - it's part of you. So yeah, that's definitely true, I think, to an extent.
Andrew Hammond: Tell us a little bit more about your role with the FBI, John. I think that that's quite interesting. Can you tell us listeners a little bit more about what that role was and what it entailed?
John Mullen: Yeah, it was a great experience. It was not something that I applied for. It's something that - I was due to come back to Washington, had avoided it. Operations officers just, for your audience's sake, generally don't like serving in headquarters. They want to be out in the field, where most of the real work gets done. And I was certainly of that mindset. But I got a call from a very senior person in CIA, and he said, I've got good news and bad news about your next assignment. I said, well, let's have the bad news first. He goes, well, you have to come back to Washington. And I said, OK, I kind of figured that. So what's the good news? And he said, well, you're going to be working directly with Bob Mueller at FBI headquarters. And I paused because I hadn't anticipated that. But the first reaction was, well, I'm still waiting on the good news. I said...
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
John Mullen: ...What's good about this? At any rate, it turned out that what Director Mueller and the FBI were trying to do was become more intelligence-driven - more proactive. So think of investigations as looking in the rearview mirror. A bank is robbed - just for the sake of example, here - a terrorist attack occurs. Let's collect evidence. Let's interview the suspects. Let's find out who's responsible and bring them to justice. It turns out, though, in a normal course of activities, the FBI collects enormous amounts of information - tons of information in their files. And the real challenge is unlocking that so that you can see patterns and trends that may inform judgments about what you could look for next - to be a little more proactive in anticipating - whether it's terrorist attacks, intelligence operations by adversaries in the United States, whatever it may be. So that was the challenge. It was a great experience, so - culture is different, overlapping authorities with CIA, but great people. I've established friendships with FBI special agents and others there that I probably wouldn't have established otherwise.
Andrew Hammond: And this was after 9/11, right? Was this...
John Mullen: Yes.
Andrew Hammond: ...Part of the effort to try to make the CIA and the FBI be in more sync with each other?
John Mullen: Right. Right. It was an interesting role because, although I was sent by CIA, I was - they made it clear on both sides I wasn't working for CIA. I wasn't their liaison officer. I wasn't their spy. Matter of fact, the deputy director told me, you're not our spy over there. Just - you work for Bob Mueller, and you do what he asks you to do, and that's in the best interest of the FBI. I said, OK. All right - understood. So it was a good assignment - learned a lot.
Andrew Hammond: And then you - and then, after that, you went back to the CIA, right?
John Mullen: Mmm hmm.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And what one piece of information - or what's one of the things that you learned in that position that you brought back to the CIA with you - some insight or piece of information or how the institutions function?
John Mullen: Never underestimate the power of an analyst with access to data of all sorts at his fingertips - ever. As you may have a piece of classified information - whether it's from a human source, a signals intelligence piece, an analytic piece that was done, whatever - I think there's still, in the minds of many, a bias toward classified information. But you have so much available in the open-source realm that sheds light on an individual's background, connections, associations, motivations. That will illuminate things that, if you ignore, you really do that to the detriment not just of yourself, but to that individual, potentially, and of the operation. So that's what I learned. People with data like that can bring more to the table - not just in confirming a piece of intelligence or adding to it or maybe slightly changing it, or sometimes calling it into question, but also enabling collection against things that are more fruitful. So that's a lesson you walk away from - not just from that experience, but just about every experience I walked through.
Andrew Hammond: And I wanted to discuss China next. But just as we leave off the CIA officer part of your - part of the interview, I know, from emails that we get, that some people listen to the podcast because they want to go into this field. If someone was listening to this podcast, what one piece of advice would you give them based on your 30 years in the agency?
John Mullen: People that may be considering a career in intelligence?
Andrew Hammond: Yeah. I'm assuming it's not don't do it (laughter).
John Mullen: No, I had the benefit, very early in my career, of having a legendary officer, whose name I won't provide, who was passing through a station I was working in at the time. He was going out as COS of a large station. And he stopped by our office and basically knew our chief there and was - I think had family business or whatever in the area. And I think our chief of station put a bug in his ear, and he came into my office, and I first wondered, why are you talking to me, you know? I knew his name. He had a sterling reputation. And he starts talking to me about what matters 'cause he knew I really hadn't decided where I wanted to go next and where I wanted to focus the rest of my career. And he said, look, my only piece of advice, gratuitous as it may sound, is do something that you know is going to have an impact. Because you can put your family in a place where they may not feel comfortable. You can throw yourself, your soul, into work that is important, but ultimately may not matter. And I said, what do you mean, may not matter? He said, that's for you to decide.
John Mullen: Policymakers always want more of everything, right? They want more intelligence all the time. But you have to decide what matters and make sure you're solid with that, and then you throw yourself into it. It could be counter-narcotics-related operations, it could be counterintelligence-related - things that could be related to Russia or China or terrorism - all those things. The extent that you have a say in your next assignment - keep that in mind. And I thought that was really, really good advice because, when you have the ultimate objective in mind - in your own mind, it's easier to kind of map out the challenges involved in taking that assignment and doing that work and plan accordingly and get your family prepared as necessary.
Andrew Hammond: And what ultimate objective did you take out of that experience?
John Mullen: Ultimately, that Asia is where it's at. Specifically, China's rise was something we had to be very, very careful about.
Andrew Hammond: OK, that's - I'm glad I asked that question because that's the perfect segue into the next part of the interview. So tell us a little bit more about China, John. A lot of our listeners know a lot more about Soviet-Russian intelligence - the agencies, the culture, the types of things that went on, how difficult it is conducting operations there, but tell us a little bit - tell our listeners a little bit more about China and break down the U.S.-Chinese intelligence relationship - some of the issues, the strengths, the weaknesses. Yeah, just help us get our heads around it. Sorry - small question (laughter).
John Mullen: Yeah. No, China's intelligence services pose a significant threat to the United States. You can see the recent joint statement by FBI Director Wray and his British Security Service colleague - unprecedented, where you have two heads of security services saying the same thing. China steals just about everything they can gets their hands on they believe is useful to their economic rise and military development that they can. And it seems like, the more we call attention to it, either in the cyber realm or the human realm or whatever, the more they do it. So that's definitely true. So certainly, with the Soviet Union and now Russia - and other countries have formidable intelligence capabilities, but none at the scale of China.
John Mullen: The one thing I'll add is they're not 10 feet tall. They have their weaknesses and frailties and issues that I can't go into. But I think that people have to understand that, especially industry - doing work with Chinese corporations or in China poses risks. I won't belabor what Director Wray and the British security chief said. But it bears repeating that you have to be very careful to protect your people, your intellectual property. You're negotiating strategy - your business' long-term strategy - knowing that they are ultimately looking to exert influence over not just the United States, but dominate certain industries. They've mapped this out. We don't have to guess at that. They've been kind enough to put this in their policy documents, and they're intent on achieving those objectives. And if you or your business partnership with a Chinese supplier or joint venture developer or R&D partner is something you value, that's great. But make sure that you know what you have to protect and protect it accordingly. That's the only thing I'd say there.
Andrew Hammond: For our listeners as well - some of them say to me, well, like, why aren't we doing this back to them? Or, you know, why are we not stealing their information? And I know that that could easily be a whole separate podcast in and of itself, but help our listeners understand this. What the Chinese are doing - is this within the gray, unwritten rules of espionage, or is this - are they taking it a step beyond what has traditionally been the case?
John Mullen: They're taking it a step beyond. The Chinese are engaged not just in state-on-state espionage - for example, like, spying on U.S. spy organizations or the FBI or the military or the State Department - I mean, the natural kind of diplomatic and government contacts you'd think of are targets.
Andrew Hammond: Where is the line? Why are they crossing the line? I'm just thinking about a recent podcast that we had where there was a Japanese espionage network in Los Angeles, and they were looking at, like, the Douglas Aircraft Company, other companies that were involved in America's industrial war machine, basically. Is that - are they not doing that? Is it not just they're looking at, you know, Northrop Grumman or - they're also looking at real estate and medicine and other things that have nothing whatsoever to do - is that what the line is?
John Mullen: No. I think, look, you have to carve out a wide space for legitimate business due diligence, investment opportunities, strategies and whatnot, knowing what your competition is up to. It's a methodology by which you do that. When you have a nation-state actually doing this at behest of their national champions in industry, that is not only an egregious departure from what we call fair-trade-related practices. It also crosses over to economic espionage, where you're inducing people into relationships where they put themselves at legal risk. So there's a very clear distinction there. You may be a Japanese company - for example, in your analogy - looking at some competitor in Los Angeles, doing all the due diligence, interviewing people, whatever. That's not the same as suborning a human source to his ultimate detriment to get the information you really want. There's a real distinction there.
Andrew Hammond: Help our listeners understand as well - you know, we hear about the Soviet Union and Russia hard targets, and the idea is it's a very difficult place to conduct human intelligence operations. This is one of the reasons why spy satellites and the U-2 and so forth were developed. How hard is it to do - conduct intelligence operations in China? I'm thinking of a guest that we had on a couple of years ago, and he said that, wherever a Westerner goes in China, they'll leave a wake - like, the same way that a ship leaves, like, a wake, where you can see where it's been. And I guess his point was that it's very difficult to conduct human intelligence operations there. And I know you can't get into specifics, but just give us a sense - how would it compare to the Soviet Union?
John Mullen: I think they're both what we call hostile counterintelligence environments, so - critical CIA threat posts is another term used. So yeah, there's no question about that. You know, you look at what they've developed. A lot of these mechanisms aren't designed with the specific intent of thwarting foreign espionage. It's designed with the intent of controlling their own people and what they see and hear and what they do. So those tools are ubiquitous. They're everywhere. And the Chinese are scaling those and exporting those at a tremendous rate, which gives everybody pause - not just when you're going to a place like China or Russia, but states that they're selling this to. So that's a legitimate concern. Everything from facial recognition technology, software programs that allow you to kind of queue up people and follow them throughout the course of their activities in whatever city they may be visiting, whatever - who they're contacting, what they're posting on social media. I mean, it's pervasive.
John Mullen: So yeah, it is a challenge. Is it insurmountable? No. And I'll just leave it at that. But as I said, going back a few minutes ago - neither the Chinese or the Russians are 10 feet tall. That's not hubris talking. It just means that, when you need to get the job done, it can be extraordinarily difficult. You've got to be painstaking in your planning and discipline, but you can get the job done.
Andrew Hammond: And do you think that there is a Chinese way of doing intelligence - you know, formed by its history and its culture? You know, you hear of an American way of war or a British way of cooking. Is there are Chinese way of intelligence?
John Mullen: Well, the Chinese have their own ministries, you know, roughly akin to those in the United States or the U.K. or allied countries. And they do their work. But getting back to my earlier comment, they have a whole different network tied to central government authorities, looking at talent and technologies and acquiring those through any means necessary. And they do it through business practices, forced tech transfer and agreements they kind of promulgate through laws they pass in China. They've passed, I think, five national security laws or versions of data privacy and national security laws since 2015.
John Mullen: So they do it through legislation. They do it through action. They do it through engagement with partners in American industry and Western industry intent on doing work in China or selling in the Chinese market. So they exact a heavy price in those discussions, and some of them are patently unfair. Some are still under consideration by the (inaudible) and others, but they do all of that. And they supplement that with nothing short of corporate espionage campaigns. So that's - they do all of that. So yes, they have their standard pieces that we do. But the United States, U.K. - none of us have anything near equivalent or remotely equivalent to what they do in terms of suborning human sources for economic gain. We just - it's not something we do. We don't spy on industry.
Andrew Hammond: And this has been such a fascinating conversation. I could dig into each one of these topics much more. But one of the things that I was going to ask now was, can we expect a book from you at some point or something, or are you quite happy doing what you're doing just now, or - what do you see the future holding for you now, John?
John Mullen: That's a great question. You know, my mom passed away 3 1/2 years ago, so I was glad to be around to have more time to see her before she passed. My father has health issues. He turns 93 a week or so, so I'm intent on...
Andrew Hammond: Oh, wow.
John Mullen: ...Spending as much time with him as I can. You know, so - yeah, I have time I didn't have before to do these things that I really want to do. Do I miss the people? Do I miss the mission? Absolutely. You know, I really do. Good friends, colleagues, people I served with, some I don't know quite as well, still involved in the mission - I wish them the very best. Do I want to rejoin them? Not necessarily. Not necessarily. That would be a really, really hard decision to make. You know, not that I wouldn't want to do it again, but I'm at a different phase in my life.
Andrew Hammond: Sorry, Director Burns, if you're listening.
John Mullen: No, no, no.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
John Mullen: That's not what I had in mind, but, yeah (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: I'm just teasing. I'm just teasing (laughter). Well, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me this morning and telling me a little bit more about your life and career. Thanks ever so much. And the next time you're in Washington, please come to visit. The new Spy Museum opened in 2019.
John Mullen: I've been there a couple of times. I've taken a niece...
Andrew Hammond: Oh, you have? OK.
John Mullen: ...And some other relatives. Yes. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Well, whenever you come back, let me know, and we'll grab a coffee or a beer.
John Mullen: Terrific. Thanks, Andrew. I appreciate it.
Andrew Hammond: All right, thank you so much.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence- and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.