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Culture Q&A

Mark Henshaw

Red Cell insider

A look at CIA reality and novelty

Red Cell insider

Mark Henshaw (Handout)

Mark Henshaw, a Virginia native who grew up amid Civil War battlefields, has fought a different kind of war for 15 years: He’s been a Central Intelligence Agency analyst. Since receiving the Director of National Intelligence’s 2007 Galileo Award for innovation in intelligence analysis, he’s been innovating through four novels in which CIA analysts are the heroes (and sometimes villains). His latest, The Last Man in Tehran, came out in late December. Here are edited excerpts of our interview before students at Patrick Henry College, followed by an excerpt from the new novel.

How did you join the CIA? In graduate school I got both a master’s in international relations and an MBA. I did the international relations because I liked it and the MBA because that was how I would put food on the table. Then I got recruited and ended up working for the agency because of the international relations degree and some other things, and never put the MBA to much use.

That sounds like deliberate usage of the passive: “I got recruited.” Who recruited you? The agency did. The agency recruits at various schools. Somebody got hold of my published master’s thesis on cybersecurity. Everybody now recognizes cybersecurity as a problem, but in 1998 the agency was just starting to look at it.

What kind of basic training does the agency do for everyone? For everyone it’s surprisingly little, at least at that time. You go in and there’s your weeklong orientation, which is to set up your 401k and those things. Then the different offices have their own specialized courses. All analysts at that time took a monthlong “Basic Analytic Tradecraft” course: You learn how to write articles for the president’s daily brief, how to do research. Case officers have a very different kind of training that’s much longer, at a different location I can’t talk about.

‘On Sept. 10, 2001, if an analyst had come into CIA’s headquarters and said, “Terrorists are going to seize multiple aircraft and fly them into buildings,” you probably would have been laughed out of the room.’

Those trained as case officers get training in small-arms use, personal defense, those things we like to see in movies? I can’t talk too much about it, but it would surprise people who think of case officers as James Bonds. The life of people in the field tends to be probably 95 percent boredom and 5 percent sheer terror, but yes, they get specific training in how to live overseas and how to do certain things covertly and clandestinely. People who go to war zones are the ones who get survival and weapons training.

You joined the CIA either at or near the beginning of cyberwarfare. When I started in 1999, no one agency group was doing that. Little things were scattered throughout. Now it’s become an enormous enterprise: The Directorate of Digital Innovation is one of the biggest organizations inside the agency.

What can you tell us about the current hacking controversies? Nothing.

The title of one of your novels: Red Cell. What’s that? The Red Cell is a real unit inside the agency. It was set up on Sept. 13, 2001. On Sept. 10, 2001, if an analyst had come into CIA’s headquarters and said, “Terrorists are going to seize multiple aircraft and fly them into buildings,” you probably would have been laughed out of the room. It was so far outside of everybody’s experience that nobody would have believed it. On Sept. 12 you would have been treated like a prophet.

CIA Director George Tenet wanted more prophets? He called in senior leaders and said, I want to get the loose cannons and the wild thinkers in the building together in one room and order them to start thinking way outside the box. It’s not hard to find who the loose cannons are in any organization and put them in one room. Tenet said, I want you to tell me things that no other analyst is telling me. Give me the possibilities that no other analyst wants to walk into my office and present. I want you to make the other analysts nervous.

Did they do that? They did that and for about the next year looked exclusively at terrorism and presented different ideas for how terrorists could do bad things. After a year Director Tenet said, I want you to do this for everything the agency looks at: nuclear proliferation, war in the Middle East, terrorism, cyber whatever—do the whole thing.

You joined the Red Cell. Did a three-year stint there. It was a liberating analytical experience. I thought if I’m going to write a novel that’s where I want to have it set: It gives you a wide-open field.

Should corporations and other government agencies have red cells? They could all benefit from some kind of unit like that, with people thinking about possibilities that fall outside of our normal everyday experience—even things that might be considered outlandish. We should ask ourselves, “How could that actually happen? What signs are there that this is becoming real?” If everybody would get into the practice of doing that, we would find ourselves surprised on the world stage a whole lot less.

How many actually do that? Not nearly as many as I would like. A unit like a red cell becomes unpopular very fast because you may spend 20 years studying a subject and becoming the expert on it, then others present a scenario on your subject they didn’t clear with you. They ask, “What if this happened?” and you say, “That’s a possibility I ruled out a long time ago.” Suddenly they’re presenting to the policymaker or to your senior leader, “Well, we didn’t rule it out, and here’s how we think it could happen.”

Sets up a clash. You need a senior leader willing to defend, protect, and encourage the red cell. Otherwise the bureaucratic pressures inside the rest of the organization will inevitably try to neuter it or squash it. That’s happened in the CIA. It takes some real vision from the top to create and sustain that kind of a unit, because if you end up with an unsupportive leader, the unit will get marginalized, if not disbanded.

From The Last Man in Tehran:

“An eye for an eye would never give Israel the security Salem wanted her country to have so much. It was too small a nation to just trade blows when it was outnumbered so heavily, and to hit their enemies harder than their enemies hit them would just escalate the violence until Israel was destroyed or Tel Aviv used nuclear weapons, which likely would produce the same result.

“What was left? Fear, only, Gavi Ronen said. Israel had to make her enemies afraid to act, and that meant striking at the very people who gave the orders to attack and those who carried them out. The people who would pull the trigger must know for a certainty that to strike Israel was to pronounce a death sentence upon their own heads. Is that terrorism? Salem wondered. Perhaps, but she thought there was a difference. If Israel’s enemies buried their guns tomorrow, there would be peace. If Israel put away her guns tomorrow, there would be slaughter in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and that was the difference.”