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Book Review: “Blinking Red: Crisis and Compromise in American Intelligence After 9/11″ by Michael Allen

Published by Potomac Books (2013)
Reviewed by S. Yasir Latifi
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 2:00 PM

Lawmaking is not always a pretty sight. Promises can be illusory, trade-offs are a must, favors are exchanged, and turf battles are waged—all to reach that elusive legislative finish line. The sight may be more unseemly when national security is in question. But in the aftermath of 9/11 and massive intelligence failures, several powerful institutions and players had skin in the game as Congress revamped the country’s intelligence apparatus. Legislative sausage-making was in overdrive.

Michael Allen’s Blinking Red offers an exhaustive, behind-the-scenes look at how Congress ultimately passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), and focuses on the clashes over the roles of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Though the bill passed with bipartisan support, Allen’s account underlines how the law’s ambiguous language leaves the DNI position in flux and vulnerable to the personalities occupying the White House and intelligence agencies.

Allen’s story covers the beginnings of intelligence reform debates after 9/11 and the aftermath of the IRTPA’s passage. It discusses a confidential report prepared by Brent Scowcroft to the White House, the first intelligence reform effort after 9/11, as well as the 9/11 Commission’s report. Mr. Allen also highlights the Commission’s savvy public relations campaign to place intelligence reform on the forefront of the 2004 presidential election. In addition, the story summarizes the pitfalls DNIs have faced in the aftermath of the IRTPA’s passage.

But the heart of the book zeroes in on congressional efforts to enact key parts of what the 9/11 Commission advocated: (1) a DNI with oversight and control of intelligence agencies and (2) an NCTC that aggregated data and coordinated tactical efforts across intelligence sources and operations. Of these two components, the molding of the DNI proved most contentious.

On one side, Senators Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman successfully shepherded a bill that adopted nearly all of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations. The bill decreed the DNI to be the head of the Intelligence Community, the chief intelligence advisor to the President, and ultimate authority on the budgets of all intelligence agencies. The NCTC, too, would coordinate counterterrorism efforts across intelligence agencies and designate roles for each intelligence entity to play during operations.

On the other side, many House Republicans thought the Senate bill was reckless and would disrupt critical chain-of-command principles on the battlefield. Led most vocally by Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Jim Sensenbrenner, the House passed its own intelligence reform bill. In it, the DNI did not have final budgetary authority and the NCTC would not plan actual counterterrorism operations; rather, the NCTC would conduct “strategic operational planning.”

What’s more, conflicting views from the White House, CIA, and Defense Department veneered the congressional debate. The White House, after much internal dispute, shared the Senate bill’s view of a strong DNI with full budgetary authority. But it also favored the House bill’s belief that the NCTC should not handle the nitty-gritty details of intelligence operations. The CIA was skeptical of creating a DNI entirely and was bureaucratically concerned with how it would affect the supremacy of the Directorate of Central Intelligence (“DCI”) across intelligence agency heads. And many in the Defense Department worried that ceding too much authority to the DNI would add an unnecessary layer of red tape that would disrupt the fighting abilities of soldiers on the ground.

Taken together, the challenges of the conference committee for the IRTPA were massive and complex. Thankfully, Allen deftly debriefs the fine points of these negotiations. Along the way, the reader is introduced to the congressional staff that spent countless hours shuttling back and forth among factions. Notably, Speaker Dennis Hastert’s Chief of Staff, Scott Palmer, is given near-universal praise for his efforts in salvaging negotiations and crafting a compromise bill.

Allen also bares several turning points throughout the talks that shaped the final bill, many of which pushed the advantage over to the House Republicans’ positions. Some highlights: a missive from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Richard Myers, expressing his personal view that budgetary authority should remain with defense agencies and not a DNI; 9/11 Commission member Phillip Zelikow’s email to negotiators supporting the House bill and the DNI’s budgetary authority under it; the loss of momentum for wholesale intelligence changes after the 2004 elections; a near-House Republican revolt with an initial compromise bill; and Duncan Hunter’s demands that defense agencies control its personnel instead of the DNI and Vice President Cheney’s subsequent intervention with Hunter.  Allen provides colorful details for each of these episodes and others, too.

In the end, the IRTPA offered language that all sides could not just embrace but ballyhoo. The bill retained the NCTC’s ability to centralize data across all intelligence agencies, but it also mandated a softer, “strategic operational planning” role for the center. IRTPA also made the DNI chief intelligence advisor with some budgetary oversight and authority over the other intelligence agencies, but it also included a chain-of-command provision, which suggested that intelligence heads retained ultimate authority over their specific agencies.

The ambiguity of the DNI’s role in the intelligence apparatus, Allen indicates, likely weakened the DNI’s ability to compel changes from intelligence departments and agencies. Further, the DNI’s broad mandate coupled with its modest budgetary and appointments authority lead to what Allen calls a “mismatch in responsibilities” for the DNI. The debate over the strength of the post, then, continues.  Allen’s book provides an essential primer on how we reached this point and what concerns are at play, now and for the foreseeable future.

S. Yasir Latifi graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law and is an Associate at Sidley Austin LLP in Washington, D.C.  He writes in his personal capacity.

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