The top U.S. intelligence officials have defended their agencies' efforts to keep on top of rapidly unfolding developments in Egypt. Officials Thursday offered sobering assessments on a wide range of threats, ranging from terrorism to nuclear proliferation.
Director of National Intelligence Raymond Clapper rebutted criticism that government agencies, particularly the CIA, failed to warn policymakers that Tunisia and then Egypt were about to explode.
Clapper, who is the top U.S. intelligence official, told the House Intelligence Committee that the spy agencies can observe trends, but cannot always predict where they will lead.
"For many years, the intelligence community has been aware of tensions and instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and has consistently reported on those tensions and their implications," said Clapper. "Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known or predicted."
Sitting beside Clapper was CIA Director Leon Panetta, who likened the process of collecting and analyzing intelligence to predicting earthquakes.
"People can tell you where the tremors are, they can tell you where the fault lines are, they can tell you what the past is, they can even tell if the threat of something happening is close. But they can't tell you exactly when an earthquake is going to take place," noted Panetta.
But Panetta added his assessment of what peaceful change in Egypt might have on the rest of the Middle East region.
"If there is an orderly transition here, and if Egypt, as the administration has urged, can move to reach out to the elements, all of the elements of the opposition, and be able to develop a timeline for political reforms that lead to hopefully free and open elections - if they can move in that kind of orderly process, then I think it could, you know, it could have a positive effect with regards to that area," added Panetta.
The two men appeared before the panel with other domestic and military intelligence officials to deliver the annual Threat Assessment report.
Clapper said terrorism remains the top priority for the intelligence community. In a lengthy written assessment, he said the terrorist threat has changed because many groups have lost key personnel, and that the groups may try to organize smaller and simpler plots to demonstrate their continued relevance.
He said Iran is developing its nuclear capabilities, but reaffirmed earlier, controversial intelligence estimates that Iran has not yet decided to actually build a nuclear weapon.
"We see a disturbing confluence of events, an Iran that is increasingly rigid, autocratic, dependent on coercion to maintain control, and defiant towards the West; and an Iran that continues to advance its uranium enrichment capability, along with what appears to be the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons, if its leaders choose to do so," said Clapper.
Clapper said North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to regional stability in East Asia, and that it continues to send ballistic missiles and associated materials to other countries, including Iran and Syria.