Book Review: Blinking Red

Blinking Red

It’s easy to forget that it’s been less than a decade since the reorganization of the intelligence community as part of the post-9/11 handwringing that went on in Washington, but as the role the NSA and intelligence community gets another look following the Snowden disclosures, it’s worth considering how the current structure was cobbled together.

Michael Allen’s new book, Blinking Red, does just that, a step-by-step walk through of the backroom negotiations that created the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the wrestling over who would get to control the intelligence community.

Allen’s work, as he writes, is more a stab at preserving history than breaking news, covering the battle between a battered CIA coming off intelligence failures about 9/11 and WMDs in Iraq, defense officials concerned about losing their grip on some intelligence groups, and a group of reformers including the 9/11 commission and Senators Lieberman and Collins who thought a major reorganization of the intelligence structure was needed to prevent such lapses in the future.

That the creation of Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the bill that was eventually agreed upon, was rocky should be unsurprising to anyone who has watched or participated in government reform.  But the resulting position, the DNI now embodied by James Clapper who has become the face of the administration’s response to the Snowden disclosures, became a contorted effort in pleasing everybody, without real command authority and more dependent on interpersonal relationships with other senior government officials for opportunities to shape the intelligence community.

Prior to the legislation the director of the CIA had responsibility for communicating with other intelligence agency heads, but no authority.  Those who thought the DNI a good idea largely advocated that someone needed to have the capability to force agencies to work together, to share intelligence, to function cohesively.

Allen spends a good deal of time on both sides of the argument, including outlining the case of those opposed to putting someone in charge of the disparate intelligent agencies, mainly argued by now retired Rep. Duncan Hunter.  The concern was that intelligence agencies previously under command of the Secretary of Defense would now have to go through a third party and that those on the battlefield would be left behind.  His concern was partly personal, as his son who would go on to succeed him in his congressional seat was in the Marine Corps at the time.  Donald Rumsfeld was also not shy about his resistance to the idea.

But Clapper, at the time head of one of DoD’s intelligence agencies, and Gen. Michael Hayden both quietly worked with congress and the White House to move the idea of a DNI along.

They’re both now two of the bigger figures in the Snowden debate, with Clapper testifying before congress and releasing statements following each new leak story, and Hayden one of the bigger opinion shapers in the media discussing the disclosures.

Clapper’s role is particularly surprising given that the eventual compromise was to give the DNI more budgetary guidance than command authority.  That lack of ability to command caused Bob Gates to turn the job down, before he became Secretary of Defense.  But it also means that Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel have more responsibility for the activities of the NSA than Clapper does, although the pair have been fairly quiet.  Despite efforts by some to improve DNI’s authority, including good faith efforts later by Gates and then DNI Michael McConnell in the creation of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence that would help bridge the divide, the law itself was only able to be passed because of lingering ambiguity about the role of the DNI, ambiguity that means the position will wax and wane depending on personalities.

Allen’s book shows the back and forth, the legislative details that created the intelligence structure that we have today.  He was in a unique position to document many of the components of the developing legislation, having served in the Bush White House working on the bill at the time.  Its intent as a historical document is obvious: the book has 60 pages of notes.

And at a time when further intelligence reform is being quietly discussed in response to concerns about civil liberties its worth a glance back at the last attempt to fix the system.  It’s doubtful that any of the constituencies pushed to change last time around by 9/11 and Iraq with thousands of American casualties, would feel any more compelled this time around.

Zachary Fryer-Biggs
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Zachary Fryer-Biggs

Senior Staff Writer at Defense News
Zach is the State Department correspondent, cyberwarfare, research & development and business reporter for Defense News.
Zachary Fryer-Biggs
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