Was Obama Caught Dumb By Middle East Uprisings?
President Obama and U.S. intelligence agencies are being criticized for what appears being caught off guard by the populace revolts in Tunisia and Egypt and the copycat upheavals in Yemen and Jordan. All are U.S. allies.
As for media and citizen journalists I would urge caution before issuing any verbal indictments since none is privy to classified intelligence reports and how the President and highest military and civilian leaders filter the information in the briefings and war room discussions.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants answers when the president was briefed and what he was told before the revolts and invoked the committee’s authority for a response from the intelligence agencies in 10 days.
According to this report:
“These events should not have come upon us with the surprise that they did,” … Feinstein said in an interview. “There should have been much more warning” of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, she said, in part because demonstrators were using the Internet and social media to organize.
“Was someone looking at what was going on the Internet?” she asked.
The best capsule I have seen in the past week of finger pointing going on in Washington is this AP analysis reprinted Friday morning by MSNBC.com.
Consider this exercise a point/counterpoint discussion and feel free to jump right in to the fray.
President Barack Obama has told National Intelligence Director James Clapper that he was “disappointed with the intelligence community” over its failure to predict the outbreak of demonstrations would lead to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, according to one U.S. official familiar with the exchanges, which were expressed to Clapper through White House staff.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence, said there was little warning before Egypt’s riots as well.
Mercy, do we need an exact time and place to marshal our forces to respond? President Bush suffered a similar fate when warned by Al-Qaeda 18 days before Sept. 11, 2001, of a pending attack on the U.S. which, of course, had much more tragic consequences.
Top CIA official Stephanie O’Sullivan told senators Thursday that Obama was warned of instability in Egypt “at the end of last year.” She spoke during a confirmation hearing to become the deputy director of national intelligence, the No. 2 official to Clapper.
And, more from intelligence:
DNI spokeswoman Jamie Smith insisted that the intelligence community “has been closely tracking these countries and as tensions and protests built in Tunisia, it was fully anticipated that this activity could spread.”
But top intelligence officials said that after Tunisia, they’d promised the White House to “do better,” according to two officials briefed on the process.
White House national security staff relayed the president’s disapproval over the wrong call in Tunisia to Clapper and other top intelligence officials in one of a series of high-level meetings in mid-January, prior to the outbreak of the demonstrations in Egypt, according to one official.
In the aftermath of the botched call on Tunisia, the intelligence community widened the warnings to the White House and the diplomatic community that the instability could spread to much of the Arab world.
My assessment falls into the range of this key House Republican:
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said it was unrealistic to expect intelligence agencies to predict what would happen in either country. “We’ve got to be realistic about its limits, especially regarding the complex and interactive behavior of millions of people,” he said.
Apparently Obama’s slap at intelligence forced some back peddling by a White House flack with this spin:
The White House publicly rejected charges that intelligence agencies underperformed on Tunisia and said the intelligence community warned the president that Tunisia’s protests could inspire copycats.
“Did anyone in the world predict that a fruit vendor in Tunisia would light himself on fire and spark a revolution? No,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.
“But had the diplomatic and intelligence community been reporting for decades about simmering unrest in the region? About demographic changes including a higher portion of youth? About broad frustration with economic conditions and a lack of a political outlet to exercise these frustrations? Absolutely,” Vietor said.
They specifically warned that unrest in Egypt would probably gain momentum, said another official familiar with the intelligence, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
My translation: Warnings were sufficient but, without specific dates, the intelligence became redundant and fell on deaf ears of the decision-makers.
It makes me wonder if our intelligence agencies advance-plan for crises such as this as standard procedure by starting at ground level at the U.S. Military War College in Carlisle, Penn., before going into battle.
Retired CIA officers, some retained for their expertise by the cable networks, do offer valuable insight but at the viewer’s risk of being fed a particular agenda.
The Tunisian surprise, followed by the worsening events in Cairo, has led some intelligence officials to question whether the hunt for al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, has starved other parts of the intelligence arena of resources and hampered long-term strategic analysis and prediction.
“Both the American and Israeli intelligence communities will have to ask themselves what they missed in Tunisia and Egypt,” said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. “Are we too fixated on terrorism and Iran today and not enough on the broad generational changes in the region?”
Retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer also defended the intelligence world for concentrating on the al-Qaida terrorism nexus from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. “Those are the people who are going to reach out and kill Americans,” he said.
Scheuer said the CIA has devoted resources to Egypt for years, fostering such a close working relationship with its intelligence service that the CIA regularly turned over suspects of Egyptian origin to its intelligence service, before there was a U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold suspects.
Former CIA analyst Charlie Allen said multiple national intelligence estimates had warned successive U.S. administrations that Egypt and Tunisia were brutal dictatorships with all the ingredients for revolt. The volatile situation outlined in those assessments of foreign nations included “youth bulges” of frustrated and often unemployed men under the age of 25, Allen said.
The old spooks speak volumes in my futile assessment of what’s happening now in the Middle East.
Whatever position the U.S. finally muddles into is this elephant lurking the sands of those deserts off the Mediterranean shoreline:
Of major concern to U.S. intelligence officials is the possibility that the political upheaval in Egypt could be “hijacked” by the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned but politically popular religious and political movement that provides social and charitable support for much of Egypt’s poor.
I’ll defer to Fox News whose commentators are playing that fear card to the utmost. It is a legitimate warning and, if the cards fall in that direction, the Iran revolution during the Carter administration will look comparatively like an old fashioned American religious revival than the upheaval that lurks ahead.
Don’t worry. The top U.S. military officer tells ABC’s Good Morning America:
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday the U.S. hasn’t raised its military readiness or alert status because of the instability in Egypt, even though the Obama administration is very concerned about the instability there.
Adm. Mike Mullen also said there shouldn’t be any rush to terminate military assistance to President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
… Mullen said he has been in regular communication with his Egyptian counterpart and he doesn’t believe the army will attack the demonstrators. He said military personnel in Egypt have sought to remain neutral and “they really want to continue to do that.”
The Navy admiral said the United States is in a higher state of “awareness” but not in a higher state of alert.
As most observers agree, we are forced to the sidelines assessing the situation with diplomacy and carrying a big stick.
(Secret Service protecting Obama — Photo courtesy Getty)