An Intelligence Failure in Egypt?

The intelligence community is like the offensive line of the government. They protect the quarterback all day long, and no one notices until they give up a sack. Which raises the question: Was President Obama blindsided by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt?

The White House, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the Central Intelligence Agency all said no on Friday, insisting that Obama has been well served by his cadre of secret fact finders.

It's true that the intelligence community wasn't able to offer much insight into the thinking of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's inner circle in the 48 hours before he fled Tunisia. But in an Oval Office briefing, Obama pressed for more detail and got it.

"The president expects that he will be provided with relevant, timely, and accurate intelligence assessments. That's exactly what's been done throughout this crisis," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

But what should the president expect his intelligence community to know? Since 9/11, the paradigm for answering that question has been binary because we all think in terms of terrorism and events. But that's not the way most questions facing the intelligence community present themselves. They're mysteries and puzzles, not boxes to check.

"For decades, the intelligence community and the State Department have been reporting on simmering unrest in the region that was the result of changing economic, demographic, and political conditions," said White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor. "Did anyone in the world know in advance that a fruit vendor in Tunisia was going to light himself on fire and spark a revolution? No."

Vietor has a point. The idea that any policymaker, be it the president or a member of Congress, would not be able to predict the spread of unrest to other Arab countries is silly: all they'd need is a television set and Al-Jazeera, along with a well-organized Twitter client.

Did the intelligence community botch a call about whether the government of Tunisia would be overthrown? That's not a question intelligence officials like to answer because they believe it misstates the nature of intelligence collection and analysis. If the CIA thought that Ben Ali would be deposed in, say, a week instead of 48 hours, does that count as a botched call?

As Clapper said at his confirmation hearing, the intelligence community is not in the prediction business.

"I think, too often, people assume that the intelligence community is equally adept at divining both secrets [which are theoretically knowable] and mysteries [which are generally unknowable] ... but we are not," he testified. "Normally, the best that intelligence can do is to reduce uncertainty for decision makers--whether in the White House, Congress, the embassy, or the fox hole--but rarely can intelligence eliminate such uncertainty."

Officials were understandably reluctant to provide too many details about the role intelligence has played in helping the United States navigate the recent uprisings. However, they did say that intelligence has informed the way the U.S. has handled its current discussions with countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. And it was CIA intelligence about the aspirations of Egyptian men that helped inform the president's efforts to increase the number of U.S. science visas.

In the early days of the two-week-long uprising in Egypt, the U.S. intelligence community passed along the assessment of Britain's SIS: President Hosni Mubarak was likely to survive the challenge to his regime. According to two U.S. officials, the CIA's analysis was more equivocal.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has increased its capacity to "surge" resources to crisis spots, particularly with analysts and in signal-intelligence collection. The National Security Agency's giant ears are now pointed at Cairo. And the CIA's analysts are working overtime to provide warning estimates about what might happen next.

"As things transpired in Tunisia, we saw, I read intelligence that talked about what the result might be in countries throughout the region," Gibbs said.

The relationship between Egyptian and U.S. intelligence services has cooled since Bush-era revelations that the United States used its ally's intelligence services to roughly question--even torture--terrorism suspects. One intelligence official said that beyond the "high-level contacts," the United States is relatively in the dark about the internal workings of Egypt's intelligence and security establishment. Though the two countries cooperate on counterterrorism and counterproliferation and share information about Iran, they tend to run into each other in less friendly ways, including cyberspace conflicts and economic espionage.

Still, one intelligence official conceded that within the CIA's stations in Egypt, most case officers and analysts spend their time chasing terrorists or arms shipments and monitoring the level of the radicalization among the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East's oldest existing political party. Back at CIA headquarters, the political Islam desk pays close attention to social and demographic trends, like the youth bulge that threatens to sap Egypt's resources.

Policymakers have changed their requirements since the advent of the age of Islamic terrorism in the U.S. The priority is counterterrorism. But a CIA official said that most of the agency's analysts still work on strategic-warning issues.