It sounded alluring and conspiratorial

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

I haven’t read any of Brad Meltzer‘s thrillers (yet), but he name-dropped the CIA’s Red Cell program in an interview, and I was as intrigued as I was supposed to be:

Around midnight on Sept. 12, 2001, then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet summoned his chief of staff, John Moseman, and the CIA’s deputy director of intelligence, Jami Miscik, to his seventh-floor office in the Original Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia. In the aftermath of the previous day’s unprecedented terrorist attacks, senior White House officials were confident that there were additional plots against the U.S. homeland — and that the CIA needed to better anticipate the range of threats that officials should be prepared for. Tenet decided to form a group of contrarian thinkers to challenge conventional wisdom in the intelligence community and mitigate the threat of additional surprises through “alternative analysis.” On that evening, his instructions were simple: “Tell me things others don’t and make [senior officials] feel uncomfortable.”

The following morning, Miscik and two senior analysts formed the CIA’s Red Cell, which has been a semi-independent unit within the agency ever since. It is devoted to “alternative analysis,” which includes techniques like “what ifs,” Team A/Team B exercises, and premortem analysis, all of which are used to identify holes in a plan, model an adversary to understand their weaknesses, or consider all of the conceivable ways a plan can fail beforehand. The term “Red Cell” was chosen by Tenet personally; he believed it sounded alluring and conspiratorial. Previous comparable units had received limited time and freedom to truly think outside the box. As the recently declassified June 2005 CIA Office of Inspector General’s review of pre-9/11 analysis determined, there was only one example of alternative analysis produced by the Counterterrorism Center’s Assessments and Information Group, and its analysts “recall utilizing no alternative analysis, and ‘did not have the luxury to do so.’”

Analysts lack this luxury because they are absorbed in conducting “mainline” or authoritative analysis, which is intended to chronicle and interpret reality for policymakers. This includes “setting the scene” of the political dynamics in a foreign country before elections, estimating the likelihood of an event occurring, or warning about longer-term strategic trends. As Robert Gates, former deputy director of central intelligence and then director, proclaimed: “[Authoritative analysis] is the bread and butter of intelligence…. Policymakers value, depend upon, and have grown so accustomed to it that this must always be our focus.” However, Gates continued, policymakers become drawn to speculative and unorthodox views, “because when presented with the ‘school solution,’ they know the world isn’t that simple, and they mistrust people who tell them there’s only one outcome.”

Miscik recalled that the initial goal of the Red Cell was to get fresh sets of eyes to reconsider the range of terror threats: “We wanted creative people who could take the existing reporting and put it back together in different ways.” Or, as Paul Frandano, who co-directed the Red Cell during its first four years, put it more directly, “Tenet charged us to piss off senior analysts. If we weren’t doing that, we weren’t doing our job.” By design, the initial Red Cell did not include any terrorism experts and only had one Middle East specialist. Members were individually selected for their analytical capabilities, creativity, and unique mindsets. They were a mix of junior analysts, one mid-level federal employee, as well as senior CIA analysts, a National Security Agency analyst, and a CIA case officer.

Some senior analysts were, indeed, pissed off that nonexperts were questioning their work, while others later acknowledged they were simply jealous of the freedoms enjoyed by the Red Cell — producing three-page memos bearing titles such as “How Usama Might Try to Sink the US Economy” and “The View from Usama’s Cave,” in which analysts speculated on what might be going through Osama bin Laden’s mind. One senior CIA analyst, Carmen Medina, thought that the Red Cell was “way too masculine and way too white in its early days,” which “means they were certainly missing out on some developing world perspectives.” Meanwhile, others never saw the point. As Philip Mudd, the deputy director for analysis in the Counterterrorist Center at the time, recalled, “I didn’t object to what they wrote, but I would always ask, ‘So what exactly do you want me to do with this?’”


  1. Graham says:

    Carmen Medina’s comment is seductive, occasionally observant, but ultimately stupid.

    Almost anyone raised, not necessarily even born, and educated in the contemporary United States [or Canada, or Europe] has a set of assumptions about the world that doesn’t vary that much from anyone else, and even not that much allowing for race or class.

    You can’t even get much alternative analysis use out of the quasi-Marxist mental framework and language nowadays, since it is almost entirely normative now. You can’t really do the opposite, and rely on the liberal worldview as a red cell for the former one, since its residual assumptions are still omnipresent.

    Not that everyone is precisely the same. There’s the set that thinks everyone does or should want to be western or like America, then there’s the set that disdains that but still thinks there’s a law and a path to some uniform modernity, and everyone will tread it to more or less a common outcome.

    In other words, there is no meaningful difference between the flawed expectations that drove the US in Iraq and the flawed expectations that almost led to an intervention to overthrow Assad in Syria.

    You need a couple of analysts who either genuinely are from very anti-US or anti-Western places and remember how their families think, who of course could never get hired, or some who love their country but disdain the prevailing jargon/worldview. Fat chance.

    Still, sometimes you just can’t break through the mindset of the enemy. Look at Japan. Hard for anyone whose culture is based on a combination of being basically peaceful and counting money and assets, like the US then or now, to figure out why Japan would go to war when the balance sheet was so wildly against them.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    “the Red Cell was ‘way too masculine and way too white in its early days,’ which ‘means they were certainly missing out on some developing world perspectives.’”

    Stupid. It doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black only that it catches mice.

  3. Graham says:

    If I understand correctly, we are supposed to believe that a person’s race/gender/orientation brings an immutable, inherent perspective or skill set to the table while at the same time rejecting race or gender “essentialism” as an evil form of evilness from the evil past.

    The circle is not quite squared yet, but I keep hearing how there’s reams of solid “data” demonstrating how essential race/gender/orientation is for success in any field, so presumably “essentialism” is winning.

  4. Graham says:

    I also keep hearing how important empathy and ‘awareness of diversity’ are, so I’m quite proud and not at all worried that I can empathize and be aware of enemies of my society so much more easily than the folks around me whose notion of diversity is based on the increased number of cool restaurants and the declining number of fish and chip places.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Data show correlation, not necessarily causation.

    Arguments based on “disparate impact” are the flip side of prejudice. It’s all reading into data what the data do not say.

    There are certain words that once may have had specific meanings (I’m not sure) but now are simply used to push emotional buttons or to confuse issues. I never trust those words. I call them whore words. Truth, love, justice, empathy, equality, fairness, diversity. Words for fanatics and suckers.

  6. Graham says:

    Harry Jones,

    Your second paragraph has made my day.

  7. Wang Wei Lin says:

    A good analytical policy would be to assume most of the world’s nations and non-state entities hate the United States then plan accordingly. You’ll be right more times than not. When Islamic nations or extremists constantly express violence toward the US…believe it!

  8. Harry Jones says:

    Those of us who understand how envy works are not surprised at the hatred that failures feel toward the successful.

    The emotion of envy is looking at someone who has a better life than you and presuming that this is unfair. It may well be unfair. But there is no objective standard of fairness, so even if the world were fair we would not all perceive it to be fair. So thinking about unfairness is a waste of time at best.

    Lest I come across too much like Epictetus – who isn’t always helpful – let me say: if you focus on improving your own lot in life, you’ll feel less bad about it all. And if you succeed in improving your own lot in life, you’ll feel great. But if not, then expect no sympathy from me – even though I’ve been there myself. Because I didn’t wallow in it.

    All things considered, I would much rather be hated than be this sort of hater. Being in a position to be envied is better than being in a position to envy. Still, it does raise safety concerns.

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