Book Review: ‘Blinking Red: Crisis and Compromise in American Intelligence after 9/11’

Reviewed by Ioana Ilie

 

Michael Allen, Blinking Red: Crisis and Compromise in American Intelligence after 9/11. USA, University of Nebraska Press, Potomac Books, Inc., 2013. ISBN: 978-1-61234-823-0. Pp. 280. Paperback. £13.99.

 

Michael Allen’s book Blinking Red attempts to be the authoritative legislative history of the U.S. Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) of 2004. Following the shock of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent public demand to ‘do something’, a reorganisation of the intelligence community was overdue. Having been considered, debated, and researched for a long time beforehand, a reform was finally in the works. The reform resulted in the creation of two institutions – the National Intelligence Director (DNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Blinking Red is an account of the legislative process surrounding IRTPA while also depicting the great sense of urgency to make the U.S. safer post-9/11, that was bestowed upon the U.S. government. More striking, perhaps, is Allen’s focus on the personalities and interpersonal relationships that shaped this bill. Individuals such as Scott Palmer (the House Speaker’s chief of staff), for example, who made significant efforts to revive the legislation even after the 2004 re-election because he truly believed in it and its importance. Or, then Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet who made the position he held more powerful due to his charismatic personality. The book also gives the reader a real taste of the internal and external pressures under which policymakers had to work. Pressures from the President, especially before the re-election campaign, and from groups such as The 9/11 Families for a Secure America are just a couple of the many examples put forward in Blinking Red.

Allen’s position as the legislative affairs officer for the Homeland Security Council in the White House gave him access to many high-level officials and meetings. The book brims with information, that Allan either acquired himself as an eyewitness; or through interviews. In this context Blinking Red is an invaluable resource for students of government and intelligence studies, as the reader develops a good understanding of the working relationship between the legislative and executive branches of government. The book is also very readable despite its handling of complex legislative procedures and the many actors involved. Chapters like ‘Dirty Bombs’ are true page-turners due to their vivid description of political intrigue.

The 9/11 Commission Report was put together by the 9/11 Commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which comprised of ten members, five Republicans and five Democrats. While Allen does not address this point specifically in his book, the even split between Democrats and Republicans is an important display of unity and compromise at a time of great partisan division. It can perhaps also be interpreted as an attempt at objective reporting on a divisive and controversial topic. Its main recommendations, put forward in the Executive Summary, fall into two categories – ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’. The ‘what’ can be summarised as a strategy, one that aims to match the means to the ends. The Commissioners proposed a three-pronged approach: ‘attack terrorists and their organizations, prevent the continued growth of Islamic terrorism, and protect against and prepare for terrorist attacks.’ In terms of ‘how’, the report calls for a better organised government and the need ‘to build unity of effort across the U.S. government.’ The Commissioners gave five suggestions towards achieving that. The first, to bridge the foreign-domestic divide by establishing a NCTC. The second, to work towards ‘unifying the intelligence community’ under a DNI. The third, to create a ‘network-based information sharing system’ in order to improve the inter-agency counterterrorism effort. The fourth, to spare no effort in ‘unifying and strengthening congressional oversight’. Finally, the fifth, to ensure the ‘strengthening the FBI and homeland defenders.’[1]

However, theory did not translate into practice, as Allen clearly argues towards the end of the book. What ended up being implemented was rather disappointing for many who expected a reform of the intelligence community. Instead of having a DNI who could easily and quickly move money and people across the intelligence community in order to meet the new threats of the post-Cold War world, the DNI was given a vague job description and limited powers. In fact, Allen gives an illuminating account of how differently officials – from the President, to the Senate, and the DNIs themselves – saw the job of the DNI.

The law gave the DNI some authority over budget and personnel but not enough to be the unifying leader of the intelligence community. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder how effective an intelligence director can be without being involved on a strategic and operational level. Allan argues, that in the end, the DNI is only as strong as the President allows him or her to be, a situation which does not inspire continuity or stability. While President Bush believed in a strong DNI, President Obama was not sold on the idea and was against the strengthening of the DNI role. Ever-hostile towards the intelligence community, President Trump also doubts the need for a DNI.[2]

At the centre of the book lies the discussion about the DNI, what he or she should be able to do and how. The reader gets real insight into many different opinions and demands that needed to be considered and managed when formulating the bill. Chapters such as ‘The Devil in the Details’ and ‘Attackers’ describe the difficult task of reaching a compromise, and the clash of ideas between three main groups: the group that was interested in a strong DNI, which was mainly the White House; the group that was interested in strengthening the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) instead, opinion voiced by the CIA and many of its former DCIs; and finally a third group, which was not interested in creating either a DNI position or a NCTC. This was the view of the Department of Defence, as well as Rumsfeld’s, arguing that such a drastic reform would only hurt the military in the field in the middle of two raging wars. Such big differences settled in a short amount of time (about four months from the time The 9/11 Commission Report was published until IRTPA was passed) resulted in a weak law. In order to get enough votes and to please all conflicting sides, the language of the bill was left intentionally vague.

‘Americans should not settle for incremental, ad hoc adjustments to a system created a generation ago for a world that no longer exists’[3], warned the Commissioners. However, four months later the U.S. settled exactly for that.

 


Ioana Ilie is a recent War Studies and History graduate from King’s College London. She is passionate about Anglo-American foreign policy and grand strategy as well as geopolitics and intellectual history.You can follow her on Twitter @ioana_a_ilie


Notes:

[1] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. Executive Summary. [Washington, DC] :[National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States], 2004.

[2] NPR, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/02/16/515590646/wheres-the-director-of-national-intelligence. Accessed 30th of October 2017.

[3] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. Executive Summary. [Washington, DC] :[National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States], 2004.


Image Source

Banner: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aerial_view_of_the_Pentagon_during_rescue_operations_post-September_11_attack.JPEG

 


Bibliography:

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report. Executive Summary. [Washington, DC] :[National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States], 2004.

NPR, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/02/16/515590646/wheres-the-director-of-national-intelligence. Accessed 30th of October 2017.

 

 

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