News / Middle East

Intelligence Lapse on Egypt Debated

Intelligence Lapse on Egypt Debated
Intelligence Lapse on Egypt Debated


Gary Thomas

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.

You May Like

Pakistan Among Developing Counties Hit Hard by Global Warming

Pakistani officials hope developed nations agree to scale back emissions, offer help in dealing with climate change

Video Speed, Social Media Shape Counterterrorism Probes

Speed is critical in effort to prevent subsequent attacks; demographics of extremists lend themselves to communicating, establishing profiles on digital platforms

Islamic State Oil Trade Seduces Friends, Foes Alike

Terrorist group rakes in up to $500 million a year in sales to customers such as Syrian government, US-supported rebels and Turkey

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs