What Do Red Teams Really Do?

Mark Perry paints a misleading portrait of how the U.S. government thinks of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

Mark Perry’s article, "Red Team" (, June 30) argues that an intelligence unit inside the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) known as the "Red Team" is thinking outside the box about the Middle East and recommending strategies for Hezbollah and Hamas that are "at odds with current U.S. policy."

Perry’s thesis is that there is an important divide in the U.S. government over how to deal with these militant groups, as evidenced by the apparent rift between "senior officers at CENTCOM headquarters" and everyone else. For Perry, a prominent advocate of negotiating with radical Islamist groups, this institutional discrepancy over Middle East policy proves that his ideas have achieved credibility at high levels within the U.S. policymaking community.

I recently returned from CENTCOM’s headquarters in Tampa, Florida, where I had the pleasure to brief senior CENTCOM and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) officers, Joint Intelligence Operations Center analysts, and several strategic planners on the strategic calculus of Hezbollah and Iran. Also present at the meetings were a few members of the Red Team and authors of the May 7 report to which Perry refers.

After the briefings, I spoke at length to several Red Team members and inquired into the nature of their work. My hosts were kind enough to share unclassified information and answer most of my questions, which clarified many of the lingering questions that remained from Perry’s article.

Contrary to what Perry’s account of the Red Team’s work implies, there is no special significance or mystery to the unit. After the 9/11 attacks, every U.S. intelligence agency was mandated to have a Red Team — an alternative analysis component — so that people in the government could imagine the unthinkable. The CENTCOM unit was established in April 2006 following an order by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with a charter to provide the CENTCOM commander, leadership, and staff with alternative viewpoints, challenge common assumptions, and anticipate unintended consequences of events and actions.

"It’s just another four to six analysts writing many different papers on different subjects. The fun of Red Team is that it has a little more flexibility than other analysts to play with ‘what if’ scenarios — and do some wishful thinking or doomsday scenarios," one senior Red Team member told me. Another strategic planner agreed with me that Perry’s article, for whatever reason, created a mystique around the team that is undeserved.

The "Managing Hezbollah and Hamas" report was written around the time President Barack Obama nominated an ambassador to Syria. The report, as one of its authors told me, was "just an analyst’s idea."

Indeed, I learned that it was not tasked by CENTCOM leaders or any of their superiors. Gen. David Petraeus, then CENTCOM commander, did read it, and he even wrote on a hard copy of the report that it was "thoughtful" — though he offered no further evaluation and did not say whether he agreed or disagreed with its conclusions.

And that’s where the discussion of the paper ended, according to the Red Team report’s author. There was no follow-up or debate about the report’s analysis. No Red Team member had a conversation with Petraeus about his thoughts on the subject. "We haven’t a clue about that," the author concluded.

Perry’s article was more or less accurate about the content of the Red Team report, but not about its purpose. The article made it sound like CENTCOM was considering making a policy recommendation to the Obama administration based on the report. It was only written for several CENTCOM branches and for the CENTCOM commander — not Washington policymakers. One might say a Red Team paper is floated like a self-generated trial balloon to sharpen American analytical skills and keep everybody on their toes.

By design, Red Team products are often controversial, as rightly stated by Perry, and the resulting debate encourages intellectual integrity and improves the quality of U.S. policymakers’ decisions. But what Perry fails to acknowledge is that Red Team products, as suggested above, are designed for internal use only and are not intended in any way to represent the collective view of CENTCOM. Just as importantly, Red Team products are not "position papers." Contrary to what Perry implies, they do not make recommendations for changes in policy. These products, instead, reflect the personal views of analysts who may or may not have been involved in the actual Red Team review of whatever issue was at hand.

Such a paper, one senior intelligence analyst mentioned to me, is just "trying on ideas for size." As the analyst put it, "We’re not here to second-guess the president or Department of State on foreign policy. Our concern is military operations and planning." So when a paper like this is leaked, it looks like CENTCOM is advocating a particular foreign-policy track, thus making life difficult for the commander, who is not (and should not be) a political figure. One can understand why top CENTCOM officers were so concerned that the report got leaked.

At a time when we should be having a transparent and reality-based debate about U.S. Middle East policy, Perry’s article undermines this goal by creating a distorted view of U.S. collective thinking toward Hezbollah and Hamas. Irrespective of whether one agrees or disagrees with U.S. policy, there is a risk associated with creating a false impression among these groups that Washington is confused or divided over policy, when in fact it is not.

Having studied Hezbollah for more than a decade and interviewed many of its senior leaders, I know for a fact that the group pays attention to Western and American reports about it — and I have no doubt that they read Perry’s article. The organization will use any inconsistent U.S. government rhetoric to prove to its constituencies that Washington has an incoherent counterterrorism policy (regardless whether that is true or not). Moreover, it will base its posture toward Israel off the assumption that Washington is unsure of how to approach the organization, when U.S.
policymakers are still resolute in their determination to confront Hezbollah on this front.

While Perry portrays the Red Team report as an indication that CENTCOM is pushing U.S. foreign policy in a direction that — in his view — will make Americans safer, his article only served to create illusions about complex politico-military organizations that want nothing to do with the United States and that, despite enjoying a certain level of independent action in local politics, still firmly operate in Iran’s strategic orbit.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.

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