The sudden eruption of mass anti-government protests in Egypt seemingly caught most people by surprise, including U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies. The turn of events has sparked questions about whether the United States experienced an “intelligence failure.” But it is extraordinarily difficult for spy agencies to predict specific events.
Former and current intelligence officials dispute the notion raised by some politicians and outside analysts that the United States suffered some sort of an intelligence failure on Egypt.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden says the intelligence community repeatedly briefed policymakers that the situation in Egypt was spiraling downward.
“It was quite clear that the current political structure in Egypt was brittle and unsustainable, that it was heading towards a crisis, that the pace towards the crisis would be accelerated by [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s age and the question of succession," he said. "Now, how much more does a policymaker need to know in order to believe that he needs to begin to look at this situation and begin to develop a plan for it?”
Emile Nakhleh, who was director of the CIA’s Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program and personally briefed Hayden on Egypt, says those meetings were quite specific about the growing pressures on the Mubarak government.
“We had said in those briefings that once different centers of power within the society coalesced - that is, secularists and Islamists and liberals and conservatives coalesced against the regime - then the regime will be in trouble. Now, of course, we could not pinpoint the specific time and specific catalyst. But I think those conditions were laid bare to our policymakers," he said.
Policymakers’ frustration with intelligence performance most often comes when events catch them without warning, such as the 2001 terrorist attack on the United States that has widely been labeled an intelligence failure. Now, some politicians say U.S. intelligence agencies had a similar lapse when they failed to offer specific warnings about Egypt.
Some of the State Department cables from Cairo to Washington, released by the online activist website WikiLeaks, show that U.S. embassies were aware of the long-simmering discontent in Egypt. The cables detail deepening public frustration among Egyptians over joblessness, high prices and lack of political reform.
A March 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Cairo labels Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his defense minister, Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, as “aged and change-resistant” and lacking the “energy, inclination, or world view to do anything differently." A January 2010 cable said “frustrated political activists” were calling for a post-Mubarak transitional caretaker government, but called such a scenario “unlikely.”
But intelligence professionals say the CIA and its sister agencies are not soothsayers. Former CIA senior Middle East analyst Paul Pillar says policymakers and the public have had inflated expectations of intelligence agencies’ powers of prediction since the earliest days of the CIA in 1947.
“They are driven by, number one, a belief that if we can do so much as we’ve done overseas, we ought to be able to figure out what’s going on in a foreign country - that’s pretty simple, isn’t it? And, number two, a reflexive need for explaining untoward events or difficult events, or especially really bad events - you know, terrorist attacks or revolutions that go the wrong way - by thinking that there’s some problem here where some part of the bureaucracy screwed up, and that if we just fix the problem this isn’t going to happen again," he said.
Former CIA Director Hayden points out that spontaneous events such as the unrest in Egypt are difficult, if not impossible, to predict. “What happened in Egypt wasn’t the product of a long thought-out plan that had been hatched over an extended period of time by conscious actors. It had more the effect of a spontaneous combustion. Now, one could predict that events in Tunisia would affect events in Egypt. But it wasn’t as if this was a long-term plan sitting in somebody’s safe waiting to be purloined or learned through some sort of agent contact or signals intercept," he said.
In December, a young man in Tunisia set himself ablaze, touching off a wave of demonstrations that ultimately led to the government’s collapse. In many analysts’ eyes, it was the fire that lit a spark that spread to Egypt and other Arab countries.