Wadle on Zenko, 'Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy'

Micah Zenko
Ryan Wadle

Micah Zenko. Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. New York: Basic Books, 2015. 336 pp. $26.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-04894-6.

Reviewed by Ryan Wadle (Air University, eSchool of Graduate PME)
Published on H-War (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Based on more than two hundred interviews conducted over five years, Micah Zenko’s Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy describes the practice of “red teaming.” The term itself has its origins in Cold War-era military exercises but has broadened in recent decades to include alternative analyses, simulations, penetration tests, and other activities designed to improve the mission effectiveness of an organization. These activities are all very different from one another, but all serve the purpose of testing an organization’s plans and assumed responses to future crises, failures, and actions. To guide his analysis, Zenko provides a list of best practices for red teaming, including supportive leadership, proper placement within the parent organization, creation of an adaptive and skeptical team composed of members capable of professional interaction with their teammates and peers, the ability to vary methods when the situation calls for it, willingness of an organization to heed the team’s advice, and, finally, strategic and selective use of red teaming within an organization.

Zenko provides some examples of how red teaming has evolved through history, briefly discussing the position of the Promoter Fidei (Promoter of the Faith)—more popularly known as the “Devil’s Advocate”—within the Catholic Church whose occupant argued against canonization of saints as well as the evolution of exercises and wargaming that originated within the Prussian army and spread to the United States in the late nineteenth century. He describes at length the Millennium Challenge exercise held in 2003 to simulate a large-scale incursion by the United States into the Persian Gulf. The “opposing force,” led by Marine Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, sought to preemptively overwhelm the fleet using missiles and suicide boats, “sinking” most of the US fleet. The fleet was reconstituted to test an amphibious landing, but, when Van Riper attempted to mete out a similar fate to the landing forces, the “white cell” running the exercise intervened to make conditions easier for the attackers (p. 54). Van Riper resigned in protest, and subsequent leaks to the press embroiled the exercise in controversy because it seemingly invalidated the basis for defense “transformation” that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others strongly supported (p. 53). This, and other vivid examples aside, Red Team is not a historical work, so readers wishing to explore Zenko’s historical examples should seek out other volumes on the subject. 

The use of red teaming within the private sector is the most anecdote heavy of the book’s chapters and easily the weakest. Penetration testing has attracted some public notice over the years, perhaps due to its prominence in the 1992 film Sneakers, but government red teaming, such as the simulated security breaches at airports prior to 9/11 that revealed significant shortcomings which the al-Qaeda operatives fully exploited, has left public records that private entities are extremely reluctant to publicize. Only in such cases as a hack of Verizon femtocells by friendly “white hat” hackers where they essentially forced the company to go public are the details of such tests revealed (p. 158). For other cases, such as when private companies attempt to simulate public and competitor responses to a major product launch, Zenko provides the outlines of such activities without presenting significant details.

Unlike many other policy-proscriptive books, Zenko’s work frequently reminds readers that red teaming is not a magical cure for organizations confronting difficult situations. In the Plan B analysis conducted of Soviet intentions in 1976, for example, the analysts selected for the team were known critics of détente, but this obvious bias made it easy for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the rest of the national security bureaucracy to dismiss the team’s results. This criticism did not apply to the CIA’s vaunted post-9/11 Red Cell, which has garnered praise from many corners for its often provocative analyses. Zenko rightfully notes that the cell’s analyses have become somewhat more mainstream and less frequent in the years since its inception, proving that there are limits to the effectiveness of even the best red teams. 

Red Team is an extremely easy read as Zenko writes clear prose and leavens the text with examples, anecdotes, and personalities that can alternately infuriate and amuse readers. Most importantly, he strikes a deft balance of linking a series of disparate activities and making a strong case for public and private organizations needing to continue incorporating red-teaming methods into their regular activities. As many of these techniques are relatively new and only now being recognized as a distinct professional activity, this subject will be worth revisiting by future scholars and analysts.

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=45853

Citation: Ryan Wadle. Review of Zenko, Micah, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45853

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