Egypt crisis doesn't reflect U.S. intelligence failure

(CNN) -- It didn't take long for the Washington long knives to come out and begin to suggest that a root cause of our current challenges in Egypt was the "failure" of intelligence -- the failure to warn, the failure to appreciate cultural movements or technological advances, the failure to take the long view or even the failure to monitor the World Wide Web.

Surely the professionals in the intelligence community will take lessons from the past six weeks, but suggestions of intelligence "failure" miss the mark and betray a lack of understanding of what intelligence can and cannot do.

John McLaughlin, former deputy director of central intelligence, famously remarked years ago that there are differences between secrets and mysteries.

There should be a high standard for intelligence organizations when they are asked to discover secrets and sharp criticism when they fail (We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction programs, October 2002) as well as some credit when they succeed (We judge with high confidence that there is a nearly completed Yongbyon style nuclear reactor in eastern Syria, July 2007).

But recent events in Egypt and before them in Tunisia did not comprise secrets waiting to be purloined.

They were the products of long-simmering unrest fed by pre-existing and well-recognized political, economic and social conditions. Emile Nakhleh was the CIA analyst who briefed me on these realities when I was director; Emile, now retired, didn't pull any punches. Recently he penned an op-ed in the Financial Times pointing out how he and his colleagues "on numerous occasions briefed policymakers on Egypt's dire economic and social conditions" and how if they were left unchecked, the "Arab street would boil over."

But as good as he was, neither Emile nor anyone else could provide the proximate cause, the exact timing or the specific trajectory of the "boiling over." That was more in the category of a mystery.

As it turned out, the triggering event was the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit merchant 1,300 miles to the west of Cairo. In retrospect, the path of the fuse between Sidi Bouzid and Tahrir Square is explainable, but that particular path was neither inevitable, confidently predictable nor perhaps even prospectively knowable.

And it's not as if American policymakers did not receive and take warnings about Egypt's brittleness to heart.

In 2008 during one of my last trips as director of CIA, Omar Suleiman (then Egypt's head of intelligence and now Hosni Mubarak's vice president) asked me to extend my visit so that I could pay an office call on President Mubarak.

On a bright Saturday morning, our small party drove to the Presidential Palace to be berated by Mubarak for 90 minutes on what he viewed as American meddling in Egypt's internal affairs. He had choice words for both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their emphasis on a freedom agenda, something that Mubarak viewed as naive in general and uninformed about the specifics of Egyptian political and security realities.

Mubarak was firm, but not unfriendly, occasionally breaking his narrative to try to assure me that he was not accusing me personally of such misjudgments.

Here was a man, I remember thinking, who had been of immense help to the United States in the region but who also clearly had a blind spot when it came to this question -- no matter what we believed or said or did. And his sentiments that day in that room were quietly being seconded by his chief of intelligence, the man ultimately responsible for the survival of the state -- and of him.

But all of that is now old news. We have a new and critical situation confronting us, one populated with mysteries and secrets. What should policymakers legitimately expect from intelligence?

First of all, they should hear intelligence describe its own boundaries. Rarely will it be able to create a syllogism in which the points that begin with "whereas" will be so numerous and so confidently known that the "therefore" will be simultaneously obvious and attractive -- even though policymakers are most comfortable in that kind of situation.

No, intelligence will, at its best in this kind of environment, merely be able to set the right- and left- hand boundaries of responsible policy discussions. It can be the fact witness, only occasionally able to make the right course of action certain or obvious but also pointing out what will likely be very "low probability shots," despite any transient political attractiveness they might have.

So policymakers should expect some wisdom from the intelligence folks on such tough questions as: "Whither the Muslim Brotherhood?" Is its participation in the transition more likely a bridge to a radical Islamic state or can there be an alternative to such a future for Egypt?

What about Omar Suleiman? All of us in intelligence have viewed him as unfailingly loyal to his president for the past 20 years. But he is also a professional, and he has shown remarkable pragmatism when dealing with Israel, the Palestinians and Hamas. Is he the one to simultaneously hold things together while building toward an alternative future?

The army has shown remarkable restraint, fitting for the high regard with which it is held in Egyptian society. But for how long? And if disorder continues and the army must act to preserve its future, does it turn on the crowd or on the president?

And what is going on inside the army? We largely know what the generals are thinking because we know most of them personally. The great mass of conscripts will (up to a limit) do what they are told. But what of the colonels and lieutenant colonels? Where are they? And how will they act?

Egypt's commercial class has seemed somewhere between tolerant and supportive of the mass demonstrations. How long will this last? At what point does the sheer disruption of business have this important group hedging its bets or doubling down?

Who is in the street? Is there any coherent platform or structure coalescing or is this still unshaped rage? Mohamed ElBaradei has been prominent in Western media because he is a familiar face there, but does he carry any real weight in Egypt?

There are more questions. And like those above, their answers are shades of gray, not black or white. Policymakers and intelligence professionals will struggle over them on our behalf. They will almost certainly get some of them wrong. But that reflects more the difficulty of the task rather than any particular failing. And in the end, what the U.S. thinks or says or does will likely have less than a decisive impact on how this ends.

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