"Despite our best intentions, the system is sufficiently dysfunctional that intelligence failure is guaranteed. Though the form is less important than the fact, the variations are endless. Failure may be of the traditional variety: we fail to predict the fall of a friendly government; we do not provide sufficient warning of a surprise attack against one of our allies or interests; we are completely surprised by a state-sponsored terrorist attack; or we fail to detect an unexpected country acquiring a weapon of mass destruction." --An excerpt from "The Coming Intelligence Failure," a Defense Intelligence Agency analysis written in 1997.
The failure of the Central Intelligence Agency to predict the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt dominated last week's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. At one point, committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the CIA should have had more warning of the revolts, since demonstrators were using the Internet and social media to coordinate, in many cases publicly. "Was someone looking at what was going on on the Internet?" she quipped.
The country's preeminent intelligence agency still has a reputation for cloak-and-dagger intrigue, but it has been hobbled by major intelligence failures over the last three decades. Among those embarrassments: being caught off-guard by the Iranian revolution of 1979 and India's 1998 nuclear tests, failing to foresee the 9/11 attacks or even the end of the Cold War and, more recently, ignoring evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Even before Iraq, however, the agency's intelligence lapses in the 1990s led to a "culture of failure ... a fatal cycle of error, criticism, overcorrection, distraction and politicization that undermined the quality and quantity of information provided to decision-makers who compounded these failing with major misjudgments of their own," according to John Diamond, a former congressional staffer and author of "The CIA and the Culture of Failure."
When the unrest in Cairo began to grow last month, surprising the White House, President Barack Obama reportedly told National Intelligence Director James Clapper that he was "disappointed with the intelligence community" and its failure to predict the unrest that led to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Emphasizing that policy decisions by the president and Congress depend on timely intelligence analysis, Sen. Feinstein bluntly stated, "I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligation in this area."
The CIA has pushed back hard against the growing perception that it was caught off guard by the extent of the unrest in the Middle East. A senior official at the agency told The Huffington Post:
"Everyone recognized the demonstrations in Tunisia as serious. What wasn't clear even to President Ben Ali was that his security forces would quickly choose not to support him. They'd stood by him before, and changed the game with their decision.
Analysts anticipated and highlighted the concern that unrest in Tunisia might spread well before demonstrations erupted in Cairo. They later warned that unrest in Egypt would likely gain momentum and could threaten the regime.
Analysts have been highlighting the many variables at play and the potential for escalation, while keeping top US policymakers constantly up-to-date on the fluid situation in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.
Since January 2010, the CIA has produced more than 1700 finished intelligence reports on the Middle East and North Africa, and over 400 were focused specifically on issues related to stability in the region."
Stephanie O'Sullivan, the agency's associate deputy director, testified at a Senate hearing last week that U.S. intelligence agencies warned Obama and the White House last year that regional discord could threaten the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who served as Egypt's president for some 30 years before ceding his post to Vice President Omar Suleiman on Friday in the face of massive ongoing protests.
"We have warned of instability," O'Sullivan told the committee. "We didn't know what the triggering mechanism would be for that. And that happened at the end of last year."
The process of collecting and analyzing intelligence is comparable to predicting an earthquake, Panetta said at Thursday's hearing. "People can tell you where the tremors are, they can tell you where the fault lines are," he said. "They can tell you the threat of something happening is close, but they can't tell you exactly when the earthquake will take place."
Diamond, whose book takes a tough look at the CIA's shortcomings, seconded Panetta's comparison and said that he is cautious about the tendency to pile on the agency after the unrest in North Africa.
"Warning of sudden developing events is one of the toughest areas in intelligence and good warning doesn't really come until right before an event," he said. "To be fair to the agency, a regime that has been in power for 30 years is by definition a low risk for turnover and change -- the agency has a lot of things to do besides throw a lot of people at low-probability events."
Upon the Senate committee's request for a timetable of Obama's intelligence briefings, congressional staffers have received a response and are currently analyzing the answers to see whether U.S. intelligence agencies provided "assessments of the broader implications of that unrest," said a spokesperson for the committee's leading Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
The agency seems to have barely stayed ahead of news outlets as events unfolded in Tunis and Cairo. "They have this $50-billion apparatus, with all the SIGINT [signals intelligence] and all the covert ops and they're not much more than an inch ahead of the media," said James Bamford, the author of "The Shadow Factory" who often writes about the intelligence agencies. "The administration has been trying to play catchup the whole time and anticipated a completely different outcome in Egypt, with an orderly transition from Mubarak to Suleiman."
Bamford, along with some former spies, have questioned whether the agency's focus on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden has starved resources for other important tools in the agency's arsenal such as 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," former CIA officer Bruce Riedel told the AP. "Are we too fixated on terrorism and Iran today and not enough on the broad generational changes in the region?"
Another challenge for the CIA when gathering intelligence in strategic-ally countries such as Egypt and pre-revolution Iran is that, as a courtesy, the United States agrees not to go behind the backs of those countries' elected leaders, according to Melvin Goodman, who spent 34 years as an analyst within the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence.
"The CIA had to agree not to collect against domestic targets in order not to go around the Shah," Goodman said, adding that "such agreements are common with allies, such as Israel and Iran, as a price of doing business with the regimes."
The knee-jerk criticism of the CIA is unwarranted in this case, other retired CIA officials and intelligence experts said. Charlie Allen, who served as the agency's assistant director of central intelligence for collection, said the Obama and Bush administrations were both warned by the CIA that Egypt and Tunisia were ripe for revolt. Intelligence assessments included descriptions of "youth bulges" of frustrated young men spilling over into upheaval, Allen said.
One sign that the administration was determined to catch up was its decision to send top diplomat Frank Wisner Jr. to Cairo. The son of CIA legend Frank Wisner, who plotted the overthrow of Iranian moderate Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and also ran the agency's top-secret operation to influence the U.S. media, Wisner Jr. is well-known within the agency and has worked at the Pentagon as undersecretary of defense for policy.
But that decision backfired when the younger Wisner veered off-message, stunning the diplomatic establishment and Egypt's democratic opposition by stating that Mubarak's "continued leadership is critical." After word circulated that Wisner works at Patton Boggs, a powerful law firm that provides consulting work for the Mubarak regime, the administration pulled him back amid charges that it was still working off an outdated script.
The apparent lack of preparedness for the turmoil in the Mideast is not considered an intelligence "failure" on a par with the CIA's infamous lapses of the past three decades, but it does serve as a reminder of previous blunders that have embarrassed the agency.
The two most recent intelligence failures -- the inability to anticipate the 9/11 attacks and the mistaken intelligence on WMDs -- were some of the worst moments in CIA history. But there was little serious talk of unwinding the agency, as some lawmakers suggested at the end of the Cold War given its failure to anticipate the Iron Curtain's dissolution. In that climate, the agency faced staff and budget reductions, prompting a decline in morale. "It was during this period, when the CIA was at its weakest, that the agency made critical misjudgments about Iraq and missed the emergence of its gravest challenge, al-Qaeda," writes Diamond.
The CIA's inspector general concluded in a 2007 report that the failure to foresee the 9/11 attacks was a "systemic failure," noting that while 50 to 60 CIA officers were aware of intelligence reports in 2000 that two of the 9/11 hijackers may have been in the United States, none of those officers notified the FBI about the potential domestic threat.
And the mistaken intelligence on Iraqi WMDs, which provided one of the key rationales for the Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003, still has analysts scratching their heads. Saddam Hussein's Iraq, after all, was one of the most closely-watched countries in the world due to U.N. sanctions. In addition to the well-reported politicization of the intelligence process, with Bush administration officials eager to find evidence to justify the war, the failure can also be attributed to a mistaken presumption that the only reason for Hussein's obstructionism and deception was that he was actually hiding WMDs.
That failure of logic also applies to the CIA's failure to anticipate the revolution in Iran. According to the agency's own analysis, "Why Intelligence Fails," they mistakenly assumed that the shah's ability to endure previous revolts would apply to the student protests in Tehran in 1979.
Analysts didn't understand the nature of the opposition, particularly the religious dimension, which was dismissed as an anachronism. The CIA believed that the shah would crack down if his rule was threatened, apparently not taking into account that this expectation was at odds with U.S. advice that he should continue to pursue democracy and reform. Most importantly, analysts did not recognize that this key belief was not "disconfirmable" -- that is, it could not be shown to be false until the shah had already been deposed.
The Iranian example is not really comparable to the recent unrest, said Goodman, because there were more clues in the run up to Iran's revolution. "The Tunisian and Egyptian experiences were more spontaneous," Goodman said, "though there should have been more attention given to the social and cultural and economic condition in the Middle East." The spark that set off the unrest in Tunisia is almost impossible to predict, he added: "The bottom line is, how in the world to you predict revolutionary developments that find a self-immolation as a pivotal event?"
A faulty assumption similar to that regarding the Iranian revolution occurred with the agency's intelligence on India's nuclear tests. Both Clinton administration officials and intelligence analysts accepted an "underlying mindset that India would not test its nuclear weapons," according to an analysis by GlobalSecurity.org. And the CIA did not take seriously the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party's campaign promises to deploy nuclear weapons.
Intelligence failures that get the most attention are the strategic surprises, Diamond said, citing Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "They finally see it coming, but very close to the event," he said, noting that the CIA is wary of false alarms.
Diamond differentiated such surprises from longer-range strategic challenges like Iraqi WMDs, where the situational assessment turned out to be completely wrong. "That was a major failure -- there was no country we were watching more closely and we had it wrong," he said, citing the Soviet collapse as another example in which there was a general consensus that the agency missed the clear signals of an impending upheaval that erases an empire from existence.
Though the CIA may have been caught off guard by the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, Diamond said, the more important question is what information the agency is providing now.
"The specific time and date of an upheaval may catch us by surprise, but once it happens, are you ready for it? Look at Pearl Harbor -- we did not know they would bomb us on December 7, 1941, but the U.S. government and the Navy were well-aware of growing friction with Japan. And when war came, we weren't starting on square one, steps had been taken to be ready for this contingency," Diamond said. "Have steps been taken by the Obama administration to deal with this contingency?"
The CIA's failure to predict the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt strikes some observers as just the latest in a long string of intelligence failures. Though the country's preeminent intelligence agency still has a reputation for cloak-and-dagger intrigue, it has been hobbled by major mistakes over the last three decades, from not foreseeing the end of the Cold War and ignoring evidence that there were no WMDs in Iraq to being caught off guard by the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 and failing to anticipate the revolution that deposed the Shah of Iran in 1979. Have a look through the slideshow for a recent history of intelligence failures.