Inside the CIA Red Cell

How an experimental unit transformed the intelligence community.

<> on February 19, 2009 in Fairfax, Virginia.
<> on February 19, 2009 in Fairfax, Virginia.

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?’”

* * *

From its origins, the Red Cell has been distinct from mainline analytical units in several consequential ways.

First, its directors personally select the analysts who serve on the Red Cell from many well-qualified applicants within the intelligence community. Directors seek people who are analytically fearless, excellent writers, and deeply knowledgeable about history and world affairs. Harder to find, but nevertheless necessary, are individuals with the characteristics of “playing well in the sandbox with others,” checking their rank and ego at the door, being bureaucratically savvy, and having the ability to laugh at themselves daily. Red Cell analysts contend that such traits are meaningful because — when compared to other intelligence community offices — the development of ideas and final products is done through a much more collaborative process of constant dialogue and feedback.

Analysts generally serve on the Red Cell for a period of three months, working on short-term projects, to the more standard two years before they return to their mainline units within the CIA or other agencies. The reason for this rotational practice is both to keep the Red Cell fresh and also to immerse as many analysts as possible to alternative-analysis techniques. “We wanted to make them atypical in their analytical approaches,” said one senior CIA official.

Second, the Red Cell sets its own agenda and primarily self-designates the issues and countries or regions it will focus on. It is largely insulated from the daily requirements of answering tactical questions, drafting speeches, and briefing policymakers downtown. Moreover, unlike other CIA offices, the National Intelligence Priorities Framework — a classified guiding document signed by the president every six months to identify priorities for the intelligence community — does not apply to the unit. Roughly 75 percent of its work is self-tasked and based upon analysts watching the calendar of upcoming events, scanning Twitter, blogs, and op-eds, or open-endedly brainstorming topics with colleagues and invited outsiders from the intelligence community and other government agencies, policy wonks, or academics.

One biannual brainstorming session is referred to as “Idea-Palooza,” which looks retrospectively at how the world unexpectedly changed and how the Red Cell might help policymakers think about possible surprises in upcoming months. A Pentagon official who participated in several of these sessions gushed, “There’s a crackling kind of energy as soon as you walk into the room.” More recently, the Red Cell has utilized virtual brainstorming through its classified blog, which draws upon expertise among the broader intelligence community enterprise. Several members claimed that the most memorable products covered issues that they had wrestled with for years but could only write about with the time and freedom provided during their tenure with the Red Cell. Before analysts pursue such solo projects, they must first get approval from a director. It is generally granted.

The Red Cell is also occasionally tasked as a formal requirement from an intelligence official or perhaps the White House. This occurs more often informally through open-ended questions posed during morning meetings or by the directors of mainline analytical offices, who ask if the Red Cell could take a fresh look at an issue or country. For example, a regional national intelligence officer may request that the Red Cell reanalyze one of the countries they are responsible for covering and ask it to make the case for how the countries could experience a sudden state failure. In one example, a March 2010 memo assessed how policymakers could sustain Western European support for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, recommending specifically that appeals from President Barack Obama and Afghan women could potentially overcome the growing public skepticism for the war.

Third, the Red Cell’s analytical products are themselves physically different from those produced by mainline offices. In 2001, before the first reports were distributed, a label was added on the left side of the title page alerting readers that it should not be considered an authoritative analysis of the subject. The warning was later standardized: “This memo was prepared by the CIA Red Cell, which has been charged by the Director of Intelligence with taking a pronounced ‘out-of-the-box’ approach that will provoke thought and offer an alternative viewpoint on the full range of analytic issues.” That text appears on a February 2010 Red Cell special memorandum: “What if Foreigners See the United States as an ‘Exporter of Terrorism’?” — published by WikiLeaks in 2010. The three-page memo, which was representative of Red Cell products at the time, broke with conventional wisdom by discussing the impact of emigrants from the United States, or Americans themselves, who take part in terrorist activities abroad. The memo stated that this could become a more widely held perception, leading terrorist groups to actively recruit Americans or countries to request the rendition of U.S. citizens whom they claim to be terrorists.

* * *

The Red Cell has evolved from a hastily assembled group focusing on terrorism that made senior officials uncomfortable to a more structured team dedicated to broader global coverage and widely accepted within the intelligence community and beyond. It was more formally established in the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which includes legislative language that Red Cell members themselves played a strong role in shaping. It has also more than doubled in size, with roughly a dozen analysts serving at any one time, and has become a highly desirable post for junior analysts or even senior intelligence analysts. “It’s where the action is,” is a description commonly used by intelligence community officials and staffers. Finally, it has “developed and sustained more formal partnerships with like-minded groups in the intelligence community, particularly red teams — semi-independent units that conduct alternative analysis and special reviews for the commander — at the Combatant Command centers, according to the current chief of the Red Cell.

With the caveat that its products are distinct and already strongly endorsed by most directors of intelligence, the Red Cell has been increasingly creative in how it catches the eyes of senior officials who are otherwise too busy to read intelligence analyses. In September 2012, then-CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus directed the Red Cell to “take on our most difficult challenges” and “shock us.”

In attempting to shock senior intelligence officials and policymakers, at times its analyses have been too creative. Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley routinely opposed the Red Cell’s conclusory and eye-catching titles. He recalled telling more than one CIA director, “Please don’t give me eye-catching titles, because they alone will stick in people’s heads and may not be supported by the piece.”

To enhance the likelihood its content is read, the Red Cell has incorporated a part-time staffer who specializes in design and graphics and has openly borrowed practices from the publishing world. In 2012, Red Cell members met with staffers from Foreign Policy to learn how the editors capture readers’ interest through catchy headlines, “listicles,” and photographic slideshows. Blake Hounshell, FP’s managing editor at the time, recalled of the discussions: “I didn’t realize that we were in the same eyeballs business, but they wanted to know how our stuff went viral. The techniques that we considered to be ‘click bait’ were what they were most interested in.” One Red Cell product was turned into a graphic novel, as an experiment, but it was never formally distributed. Several of these techniques first adopted by the Red Cell have been utilized to frame and package other mainline analytical products from the intelligence community.

The Red Cell is now less confrontational and more transparent with its mainline colleagues and others in the intelligence community than it used to be. Before tackling an issue or region, the Red Cell might now alert the relevant group chief before releasing a product or report so they will not be surprised (though they have no say in what the Red Cell pursues or publishes). Close watchers and consumers of the Red Cell also contend that its work has become less “alternative” and speculative in nature and more actionable and responsive to current events. A rare critique of the Red Cell’s recent work is that it has become reminiscent of journalists or bloggers, who have to come up with something to write about even when the topic might not be worth pursuing. This criticism is met by most other observers, who say that the Red Cell’s work has become more analytically rigorous and, like most intelligence products since the disastrous Iraq weapons of mass destruction misdiagnosis, more willing to show the homework and sourcing supporting an analyst’s assumptions.

Also, mainline offices have been authorized to do an increasing (though still limited) number of their own alternative analyses over the years, which officials say has eaten into the Red Cell’s work. The requirement to show more homework, the growing length of Red Cell products, and the red-teaming competition from line offices help explain why the Red Cell has produced fewer products over time despite having a larger staff.

* * *

Another consistent observation that policymakers and senior officials offer is that once you get past a catchy headline, the Red Cell’s analysis is not that unique or unusual. Rather, its work should really be viewed in comparison with the normal dry, generic, or boring intelligence analytical products often associated with those of mainline offices. As secretary of defense, Gates made a point to read every Red Cell analysis. “I never skipped past one of them.… I found their analysis pretty useful because, while they were an alternative perspective, I never found that they had fallen off the edge of the world.” A senior intelligence official outside of the CIA, who otherwise praised the Red Cell’s ability to consistently reframe an existing topic, also thought that “in some respects, their work gets read specifically because it is produced by the Red Cell, not necessarily because it is value-added.” Michael Hayden, the CIA director from 2006 to 2009, found the Red Cell’s work “a little too much like science fiction at times” but also insisted, “I read everything it produced closely because I wanted to have my mind stirred.” He added that most of the CIA’s mainline analytical products generally could not accomplish this.

Indeed, as is true of any alternative-analysis unit, evaluating the Red Cell’s effectiveness in stirring minds or promoting out-of-the-box thinking is challenging because it can rarely be proved that any Red Cell product directly resulted in a new policy outcome or changed an official’s way of thinking. Moreover, Red Cell directors and members note that it is often impossible for mainline offices to demonstrate the significance of their own standard analytical work. But the demand for the Red Cell’s work has been high and sustained since September 2001, and, for most intelligence analysts, having one’s work sought after and read by senior officials is the ultimate professional goal and demonstration of relevance.

Former President George W. Bush read almost every one of the Red Cell’s products and would question Red Cell analysts personally in the Oval Office, telling them: “I am going to ask tough questions, but I’m not going to ask you to change your views. I want to understand what you’re telling me.” Senior National Security Council officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations have also been avid readers. In part, this is because policymakers become conditioned by reading authoritative analytical products and, unsurprisingly, are then interested and even enthusiastic when the intelligence community produces something unexpected and original.

While the Red Cell was created in the wake of 9/11 to deal exclusively with the prospect of additional terrorist surprises, its ability to adapt to the needs of its consumers strongly demonstrates the utility in supporting and resourcing an enduring alternative-analysis office. Beyond the demand from policymakers to read what the Red Cell produces, its impact has also been felt within the CIA and the broader intelligence community. Alternative analysis is now more widespread and accepted in large part because the Red Cell was established and endorsed by successive CIA directors, including the current director, John Brennan. Moreover, these directors have wisely allowed the unit to evolve to answer the perceived demands of policymakers. They have also made the Red Cell a “safe to fail” environment, which has fostered unconventional and challenging analytical products — of mixed quality and utility — that would have never been created otherwise.

In September, I asked the current and longtime Red Cell chief about how they thought about and measured the impact of their products on decision-makers:

“Given that our mandate is ‘to provoke thought,’ the scope of our readership is a useful metric. In the past couple of years, we have watched Red Cell readership in our online publications grow significantly. Red Cell products have led to vigorous virtual discussions among readers within the [intelligence community]. In addition, we receive a good number of requests for Red Cell products from a diverse set of senior policymakers, suggesting that Red Cell products spark interest and are useful.”

Another recent Red Cell member described the unit’s “hit rate” — meaning having an impact on policymakers’ thinking — at “50/50.” The member observed, “If [policymakers] like us too much, we’re failing at our mission.” Providing a similar assessment, Michael Morell, who read hundreds of Red Cell products before he retired in 2013 as the acting CIA director, described the unit as resembling a home-run hitter for whom you learn to live with the strikeouts. “For every seven duds, you get three brilliant pieces. So you have to learn to live with the duds and not try to smother [the Red Cell] with traditional oversight that would kill its creativity.”

This batting average far surpasses the impressions that mainline analysis customarily has on senior officials. Of course, whether any Red Cell product compels officials and policymakers to change their minds or policies remains completely up to them. The point of red teams that do alternative analysis, like the Red Cell, is that they provide decision-makers a unique perspective that they would otherwise never receive.

This excerpt was adapted from Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy by Micah Zenko. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Book Group.

Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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