In the span of a few hours Thursday, two of the nation's highest-ranking intelligence officials got it badly wrong on what was expected to happen in Egypt--and the nature of the group that might take power when Hosni Mubarak leaves. Their comments represented major failures in both intelligence gathering and analysis, at the very time we need the highest-quality reporting from the Middle East.
CIA Director Leon Panetta committed the first flub. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee this morning, Mr. Panetta told lawmakers "there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak will step down this evening." Panetta's remarks came hours before a major speech by the Egyptian leader.
And, there was every reason to believe that Panetta's forecast would prove accurate. The United States maintains close ties with both the Egyptian military and its intelligence services. In fact, the nation's recently-appointed vice-president, Omar Sulieman, has been described as "the CIA's man in Cairo," a reference to his lengthy tenure as head of Egyptian intelligence and close ties to his American counterparts.
In other words, Egypt is not a country where the U.S. intelligence community is without sources. And based on Panetta's statements, the majority of those sources (and other forms of intelligence reporting) suggested that Mubarak was preparing to relinquish his 30-year hold on power.
Of course we know what happened. The Egyptian President gave his speech Friday night, but vowed to hang tough, striking a provocative, even defiant note. Clearly, it wasn't the resignation speech the CIA was expecting.
And if that weren't bad enough, our Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had his own howler on the same day. In his own testimony before Congress, General Clapper said the Muslim Brotherhood "is largely secular;" has "eschewed violence," and is "pursuing social ends."
By days end, Mr. Clapper was walking back those remarks. True, the Brotherhood operates hospitals and social programs in Egypt, but there is ample evidence that many of its factions are active participants in terrorism and still want to wipe Israel off the map. Needless to say, Clapper's comments raised a lot of eyebrows in Washington--and beyond.
But this goes beyond two senior spooks making laughably bad calls on a critical subject. Most individuals in the positions held by Mr. Panetta and Mr. Clapper are very guarded in their comments, knowing the potential impact of their words. And, in virtually all cases, there public remarks reflects the intelligence community's assessment of a particular situation.
So, in that sense, the observations of the CIA Director and the DNI (likely) reflected the consensus of our intelligence community. That means that a lot of senior analysts got together and decided that Mubarak would resign (based on our intelligence), and the jihadist group that wants to replace him (the Brotherhood) is really a bunch of Jeffersonian Democrats in disguise.
We should hope that Congressional intelligence committees recall both men as soon as possible, for an extended period of closed-door testimony. The committees need to find out how the CIA chief and his boss arrived at such laughably-bad assessments--and who led the efforts that produced those faulty forecasts.
Not that it really matters. As the AP reported earlier this week, accountability in the intel community remains virtually non-existent. Officers guilty of job failure or misconduct have routinely escaped punishment in the CIA, and it's very unlikely the analysts who "prepped" Panetta and Clapper will be punished, either. We should note that the CIA employees referenced in the AP article were accused of mistreating terror suspects, not providing shoddy analysis. But as this episode reminds us, the intelligence community is consistent in one regard: you can screw up, escape sanctions and still retire with a very nice pension.
ADDENDUM: In the interest of fairness and accuracy, we do affirm that Mr. Mubarak finally stepped down Friday night (Cairo time), so Panetta's forecast was off by only 24 hours--or so it would seem. But if there was some uncertainty about the timing, we'd expect Panetta to say the Egyptian leader was expected to depart in the coming days. We're also told that the CIA Director's remarks were based largely on television news reports, which does little to create confidence in Mr. Panetta or his analysts.
Obviously, media reporting can be very useful in a fast-moving crisis. Walk into any intelligence indications and warning (I&W) center and you'll see a bank of TV monitors tuned to the cable news channels. But for something as important as the departure of a key foreign leader, intelligence officials should compare their own reporting with what the media outlets are saying. In the case of Mubarak's resignation, it would be interesting to know how our intel agencies got it wrong. Perhaps Mubarak had a last-minute change-of-heart Thursday evening, and tried to hang on a little longer. But if that was the case, then the same sources that predicted his resignation on Thursday should have reported the change of plans, telling their American contacts that Mr. Mubarak was planning to tough it out.
As for Mr. Clapper and his comments on the Muslim Brotherhood, we recommend Andrew McCarthy's post at NationalReview.com: There's Willful Blindess and Then There's Stupidity." That pretty well echoes our thoughts on Clapper and his amazing comments. But remember: the former Air Force General isn't paid to study terror groups in depth; his assignment is to run the nation's intel bureaucracy. His remarks on the Muslim Brotherhood reflect the "consensus" of the intelligence community, i.e., all those well-educated analysts whose sole job is to attain expertise on the Brotherhood, Al Qaida, or other other Muslim terror groups.
If the "smart guys" in the spook world believe the Muslim Brotherhood is morphing into a mainstream political group, we are in trouble. Very serious trouble.