An Intelligence Failure In The Middle East?

Some in Washington are claiming the intelligence community missed the warning signs of unrest in Tunisia and Egypt in what looks like little more than an effort to create scapegoats if things go wrong.

In the wake of protests that have led to one government being deposed in Tunisia and another under siege in Egypt, many in Washington are expressing disappointment that the U.S. intelligence community seemingly missed the warning signs:

U.S. intelligence agencies are drawing criticism from the Oval Office and Capitol Hill that they failed to warn of revolts in Egypt and the downfall of an American ally in Tunisia.

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.

Top senators on the Intelligence Committee are asking when the president was briefed and what he was told before the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

“These events should not have come upon us with the surprise that they did,” the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., 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.

That last part is, perhaps, a legitimate question but I’ve got to agree with Ed Morrissey that there’s really very little to this criticism, and it looks to me like we’re seeing people in power stake out their positions for a “Who Lost Egypt?” debate should that come to pass:

They may have missed the Facebook and Twitter organizing messages — and one has to wonder why no one seems to have paid attention to that — but the pressures that finally erupted aren’t exactly a surprise to anyone.  Both Hosni Mubarak and Ben-Ali are and were oppressive dictators, with the latter also being particularly ostentatious about it.

Indeed. In fact, documents from the Wikileaks diplomatic cables dump show that the U.S. has been concerned for years about the question of who would succeed Hosni Mubarak, and that we spend the last several years providing behind the scenes support to dissident groups in Egypt:

A 2008 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Cairo leaked by WikiLeaks on Friday shows another side to the United States’ relationship with Egypt in recent years. The cable outlines how the State Department helped an Egyptian pro-democracy activist attend a “Youth Movements Summit” in New York and how the unnamed activist presented an “unwritten plan for democratic transition in 2011.”

While the United States has received criticism for its support of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in the face of anti-government protests, the newly released cable indicates that the US was also supporting his detractors. It notes State Department efforts to apply pressure on Egypt in order to have dissidents released from custody.

The cable also described meetings that the Egyptian activist held with US members of congress. Among those he met with in 2008 were Representative Edward Royce and current chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The pro-democracy activist told embassy officials that one of the congressmen even invited him to speak at a congressional hearing scheduled for early 2009 regarding “religious and political freedom in Egypt.”

So, on some level, the idea that the intelligence community missed anything here is simply absurd. The warning signs were all there, and if the unrest in Egypt hadn’t started on January 25th, 2011 in response to the protests in Tunisia, then they would’ve happened at some other time. Anyone in Washington who says they didn’t see this coming is either lying or they weren’t paying attention to the world around them.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Democracy, Intelligence, Middle East, National Security, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. To agree with your basic conclusion: it seems to me that a lot of people think that the US intelligence community has special super powers.

    Perhaps instead of constantly asking “how did US intelligence miss X” we should recalibrate our expectations.

    I will, dissent, in part, however: I am not sure there was any really good way to know that protests on this scale were likely or on the horizon. What we are seeing is a rare type of event.

  2. Charlotte says:

    I agree, I don’t think this was a failure of intelligence. I was getting invited to Jan 25th protests on facebook up to a week before they occurred by Egyptian friends of mine, I can’t imagine the CIA didn’t know something about it. I think the level of violence of the police response was surprising, but most were expecting some sort of similar unrest when Mubarak’s term ends in September. Then again, I don’t know what type of information the intelligence community had access to.

  3. James Joyner says:

    And, frankly, I’m not sure that Mubarak is all that repressive by Arab standards. I don’t know that Egyptians have ever known a more benign government.

    Like the mess in Tunisia — which may well have helped catalyze these protests — I think this is as much about a failed economy and jobs as it is about form of government or any particular bad deeds on the part of Mubarak. It’s essentially their version of the Tea Party movement, except that they have a whole lot more to bitch about and a whole lot more unemployment and deprivation, especially among the young population.

    That Egypt was ripe for revolution has frankly been the case more often than not. So it’s probably unfair to expect that our intel folks would have thought *Ah, it’s going to happen any day now.*

  4. @James

    Exactly. I think everyone who was watching a place like Egypt knew that the resentments were building up slowly but surely. It’s next-to-impossible, though, to know what will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. In this case, it seems to have started when a young man in Tunis was accosted by police, setting off the protests there, which people in Egypt were aware of thanks to the coverage by al-Jazeera and other regional news orgs. Who could’ve seen that coming?

  5. ponce says:

    “That last part is, perhaps, a legitimate question but I’ve got to agree with Ed Morrissey that there’s really very little to this criticism”

    Far be it for me to question a thinker like former call center employee Special Ed from Hot Air, but if our intelligence services, whose budgets are gusting into the $100 billion/year range, can’t predict 9/11 and they can’t predict the Egyptian crisis, what good are they?

  6. To build on the point: resentment is not an unusual sentiment in a population. The truth of the matter is that it normally does not get translated into massive political action.

  7. Put it this way: when I was an early graduate student I was extremely interested in revolutionary change to the point that I at one point planned to do my dissertation on the topic. However, I soon realized that the number of cases for study (even failed cases) was really small, making original work more difficult to do.

  8. DC Loser says:

    They may have missed the Facebook and Twitter organizing messages — and one has to wonder why no one seems to have paid attention to that

    You might be interested to know that the powers that be in the Intelligence Community has blocked access to Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and a host of other social media sites to its workforce for fear of government employees wasting their day goofing off doing non-business related stuff on them. You can make your own assessment of this type of CYA policy.

  9. ponce says:

    “However, I soon realized that the number of cases for study (even failed cases) was really small…”


    Starting with the failed Egyptian revolt against Persian rule in 487 B.C. and moving forward I came up with dozens of revolts off the top of my head.

  10. @ponce:

    I was referring to actual revolutions (note I said “revolutionary change”). Revolts are another matter. It also depends on definitions.

    I may get around to blogging on this at some point, but we’ll see.

  11. ponce says:

    “I was referring to actual revolutions (note I said “revolutionary change”). Revolts are another matter. It also depends on definitions.”

    So you wouldn’t count the American Revolutionary War as a revolution?

  12. @ponce:

    In fact, I wouldn’t. I think it is more properly understood as a war for independence. There was no restructuring of the economic and social structures of the US and even the political changes, as significant as they were, were evolutionary.

    The unambiguous cases of revolution (i.e., the ones that almost no one will argue with) are: France, Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua. From there you get debates, although a longer list can be compiled, depending on the definition.

    There is also a debate as to how to categorize what happened in eastern Europe with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites. How much, for example, in a given case was simply a governmental collapse of its own weight and how much was a push? Poland, for example, might be considered revolutionary change, East Germany, not so much.

    Of course, all of this is a longer discussion.

  13. bains says:

    Ponce, you are so witty, kinda like all those “non-partisan” Common Cause folks non-violently protesting a perfectly legal gathering of differently thinking Americans.

    Not that I blame you. You are most probably willfully ignorant, encouraged by “trusted” sources that cater on, nay feed, your blind spots; those that foist allegiances to lost yet oh-so yearned for unicorns causes in your wheel house. And it will inevitably lead to you labeled as useful idiot.

    Of course, the other option is that you are a willing participant in the selling of a lie for solely ideological purposes.

  14. ponce says:

    And I thought I was being so well behaved in this thread.

  15. Well played, Sir.

    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here:

    Remember: no policy failures, only intelligence failures. Or, alternatively, diplomatic failures.

  16. User Loser says:

    Hubris. Know everything while knowing nothing at all. We spend way too much for a bunch of suits with nothing in them having a circle-jerk(did I mention that we seem to pick for a lack of empathy in HR). How are we going to get good intelligence when we usually pick guy’s who went through the military and still want to have anything to do with government. What we need is guys who went native a long time ago and probably couldn’t get a job in industry. Seriously we have an inbred culture running Washington and things aren’t going to get better soon.