Of the thousands of books on Congress and the legislative process that adorn the shelves of libraries, few tell the story of how bills actually become laws—least of all in a way sure to capture the attention of both practitioners and curious laypeople. Here, Michael Allen does precisely this, and along the way he provides readers with an additional gift: a deep understanding of the issues and controversies that beset the American intelligence-gathering community in the days preceding and following the 9/11 attacks.

Allen is uniquely poised to tell this story. He was senior director of legislative affairs for the National Security Council during the Bush administration, while the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 was being cobbled together. Later on, he served as majority staff director for the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence. As such, he brings the perspectives of all who had a hand in shaping the final product.

To call Allen’s study of the passage of the first major reform of the U.S. intelligence-gathering apparatus since 1947 “exhaustive” would be an understatement. To term it a “page-turner” would not be. And although readers who pick up Blinking Red are aware of how the story ends, Allen injects a welcome ingredient of suspense. None of the events he describes was inevitable.

In the National Security Act of 1947, Congress established the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA had not been of central concern to its architects. It began its life with a dual mandate. Its director was made responsible for running the nation’s principal spying agency and for “coordinating, evaluating, and disseminating intelligence” throughout the government. In executing this second role, the director of central intelligence had no budgetary authority over other agencies housed across the government (15 in all, 8 in the Defense Department), no final say over personnel beyond the CIA, and no exclusive access to the president to force interagency collaboration.

After the 9/11 attacks, a consensus emerged within the intelligence community that decentralization of intelligence-gathering, along with actual and perceived legal barriers, had prevented the United States from aborting the attacks. Clues had come in from various sources. Agencies did not always follow up. In the language of those times, “dots were not connected” within or across agencies.

Among its 41 recommendations, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) suggested centralizing intelligence-gathering capabilities in the person of a director of national intelligence. That person would oversee all of the nation’s intelligence operations and would function (as one of its promoters suggested) as the nation’s intelligence “quarterback,” with complete budgetary authority and full hiring and firing authority for all intelligence personnel.

Allen attributes the speed with which Congress and the administration took up the proposal to the vision of the commission chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean. Mindful that dozens, if not hundreds, of reports of previous commissions were gathering dust in archives and libraries, Kean wanted to see his recommendations enacted, and soon. He kept the commission in the public eye through well-attended, well-covered hearings and other events; he insisted that the report be written in a style that differentiated it from other government reports; and he relied on the families of 9/11 victims to keep the pressure on. That the report was released at the height of the 2004 presidential election did it no harm, Allen suggests, as both candidates responded with a “bidding war.” In a departure from precedent, Congress held dozens of hearings during its traditional August recess, and Senate majority leader Bill Frist assigned the bill to the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee rather than the Armed Services or Intelligence committees.

Not to be missed is Allen’s account of how, after steering the bill through the committee, Chairman Susan Collins successfully fought back crippling floor amendments from powerful senators—a tale of persistence, patience, and hard work trumping perceived clout in the Senate. Over in the House, however, Majority Leader Tom DeLay took the opposite approach to Frist’s. He invited as many as 13 committees to offer suggestions and was open to recommendations the commission had not considered. Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter proved a skillful opponent to the commission’s primary recommendation. Concerned that the centralization of intelligence posed a threat to the chain of command between combat forces and their military superiors, he secured endorsements for his view from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the commission’s executive director. Meanwhile, Chairman James Sensenbrenner of the Judiciary Committee wanted a federal ban on the issuance of driver’s licenses to undocumented aliens.

The opposition of Chairmen Hunter and Sensenbrenner, and their capacity to hold committee Republicans behind them, threatened to undermine Speaker Dennis Hastert’s leadership; Hastert’s decision to put the bill on hold until a majority of the majority party endorsed it gave rise to the so-called Hastert Rule.

With all sides eager to move on, staff at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue finally hammered out a compromise. Not surprisingly, they agreed to language that left it to the White House to issue guidelines for the new director of national intelligence, especially with regard to the chain of command. With Congress largely out of the picture, what Allen terms “bureaucratic black arts” took over, as interested parties shifted their lobbying efforts to the executive branch.

It is Allen’s contention that the legislation left things better than they had been before, but only by so much: In the words of Senator Pat Roberts, it was “not the best possible bill, but rather the best bill possible.”

At the time, National Security Council director Stephen Hadley suggested that, after the legislation had been allowed to work for a while, policymakers “go to the next level of reform.” It is now a decade since Kean and his colleagues pressed their case. With cyber-related security issues commanding increased attention, the safeguarding of classified materials a rising national security concern, and Americans worrying more about protecting their civil liberties, might that time now be at hand?

Alvin S. Felzenberg, former spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, is the author of The Leaders We Deserved and a Few We Didn’t: Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.

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