Blinking Red: Crisis and Compromise in American Intelligence after 9/11
Potomac Books, 2013, 256 pp., $29.95
he road to real intelligence reform is littered with the carcasses of forgotten studies and ignored reports.”1 When Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Richard Shelby wrote those words in December 2002, the United States was still reeling from 9/11, the congressional intelligence committees were grappling with what went wrong, and the 9/11 Commission was just getting started. What happened next was improbable: Within two years, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA), the most sweeping restructuring of U.S. intelligence agencies in half a century.
Much has been said about this controversial law, which demoted the CIA, created a new Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to oversee all 16 Federal U.S. intelligence agencies, and established a statutory National Counterterrorism Center to fuse terrorism threat reporting and operational planning. To critics, these changes added yet another bureaucratic layer onto an already overly bureaucratic and sprawling intelligence system that guarded information in all the wrong ways. If the root cause of 9/11, from a strictly managerial point of view, was a failure to connect known dots across agencies, then creating even more agencies to coordinate did not look much like a winning plan.
What’s more, so many compromises were required to pass IRTPA that the bill ultimately left the DNI a sort of executive eunuch, a position without sufficient budget and personnel powers to take on the Secretary of Defense and knock bureaucratic heads together. Indeed, the DNI was considered such an unattractive job that President Bush had a hard time finding someone to take it. Former CIA Director Bob Gates decided he would rather try to turn around the losing war in Iraq as Secretary of Defense than become the first DNI.
To supporters, however, IRTPA for the first time put one person clearly in charge of the entire intelligence system who did not also have to worry about the day-to-day running of the CIA. That alone, supporters argued, offered a dramatic improvement over the past, when the CIA Director never had enough time or clout to do both jobs well. What’s more, the vague compromise language in the statute, supporters also suggested, held out hope that the DNI’s budget and personnel powers could grow over time.
All that makes for a nice story, and not at all an unfamiliar one to those who have been paying attention to this neck of the policy woods for the past dozen years. The part of the story that has not been told, however—and what Michael Allen’s insider account Blinking Red provides—is how this legislation defeated the most powerful virtual interest group in Washington: the status quo, as jealously and zealously guarded in the Legislative Branch. As part of the White House’s legislative affairs team handling the Bush Administration’s response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, Allen was in the room and even at the table for nearly all of the key discussions that hashed out the final text of IRTPA. He later served as staff director for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, giving him a vantage point to see how the fledgling DNI position actually worked once the legislation became law.
For those interested in a fuller view of the compromises, politics, personalities, twists and turns that led to the surprising passage of this landmark bill, Blinking Red is an invaluable resource. Allen’s narrative is thoughtful, dispassionate and richly sourced with on-the-record interviews of major players from across the aisle. He has a gift for making the arcane intricacies of legislative provisions come alive. He details, for example, the frantic texts from Senator Susan Collins’s chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, who was attending the Kennedy Center honors. The crisis, which threatened to scuttle everything, involved one word: whether Cheney would accept language saying the “DNI shall not abrogate the chain of command” (instead of “the DNI shall not compromise the chain of command”) and whether the Vice President could convince House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter to accept it, too. “When the VP steps out of the box, he will have two messages”, texted the Senator’s staffer. “One message will be from Duncan Hunter and one from me. Make sure he calls me back first!”
Allen’s account emphasizes three powerful forces: the 9/11 Commission, which carefully choreographed the rollout of its report to gain maximum political exposure during the 2004 presidential election, and became one of the most successful presidential commissions in American history; the outsized role of the 9/11 families, which one legislator called the most powerful lobby group he had ever seen; and, standing on the other side of the debate, the powerful Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter, whose insistence on limiting the DNI’s control over Pentagon intelligence agencies and assets to protect warfighters (including his own son) brought the bill to the brink of death more than once.
Allen portrays Hunter, in particular, as savvy and wily, able to secure Pentagon air cover, so to speak, for his position by prevailing upon JCS Chairman Richard Myers to draft a letter offering the Chairman’s professional judgment about the risks of the President’s bill to the military. Allen makes this sound like a high-minded and novel move, but in truth it was a tactic right out of the Pentagon’s playbook from the 1990s. In 1992 and again in 1996, when intelligence reform bills were gathering momentum, senior defense officials killed them by issuing the same arguments in letters to—guess who?—the House Armed Services Committee chairmen.
By and large, too, Allen gives Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld and his lawyer, David Addington, a pass. Though many involved in IRTPA have insisted that Rumsfeld and others were busy trashing the bill behind the scenes, Allen portrays Rumsfeld as being opposed but restrained, voicing his objections almost entirely through memos to the White House. “The White House suspected that the Defense Department was quietly working against the President’s strong-DNI position”, he writes. Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman, one of the key architects of the bill, later put it a bit differently: “No one missed the big fights when we were doing the intel reform law with the Pentagon. In case any of you missed it, I’m not sure what planet you were on.”2
linking Red raises one particularly tantalizing “what if.” In 2004, General James Clapper, then the director of the Pentagon’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and General Michael Hayden, then the director of the National Security Agency, began coordinating with Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin to quietly propose that NGA, NSA and other major Pentagon intelligence agencies be removed from Defense Department control to give the DNI real power. The idea was radical, and had echoes of an earlier, far-reaching reform proposal by Brent Scowcroft. Clapper and Hayden even held a secret “off the calendar” meeting with White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend in the White House mess to push the idea. But Rumsfeld found out about it, conducted an unpleasant dressing-down lunch with the two generals, and their proposal was never made public. If it had been, it could have been a game-changer.3
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act remains a work in progress. Alongside the old challenges of coordination and counterterrorism that the act sought to address nine years ago, U.S. intelligence officials now also face crucial new challenges. These include determining the CIA’s proper mission balance between traditional activities and targeted killing; widespread debate over the scope and oversight of NSA surveillance activities in the post-Snowden era; and a threat environment that appears even more fluid and uncertain than it did during the 1990s. Blinking Red reminds us that looking back and looking ahead are inextricably intertwined, and that “reform” never turns out exactly how we want or expect it to.
1U.S. Congress, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “September 11 and the Imperative of Reform in the U.S. Intelligence Community: Additional Views of Senator Richard C. Shelby, Vice Chairman, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence”, in Joint Inquiry Report, 107th Congress, 2nd session, December 10, 2002, p. 3.
2Harman, Intelligence Reauthorization news conference with members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, March 30, 2006.
3General Hayden referred obliquely to his communications with General Clapper in an extended conversation with American Interest editor Adam Garfinkle, “Privacy and National Security”, The American Interest, August 22, 2013.