Monday, February 07, 2011
Joe Mazzafro

My plan for this month’s edition of Mazz-INT was to discuss with you new House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence (HPSCI) Chairman Mike Roger’s statements about  throttling back the size and influence of the Office the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).  We will actually get to this indirectly, but the vortex of events in Egypt since 25 January trivializes, in the short run at least, any other Intelligence Community (IC) topics.

Without making a judgment about the Administration’s response(s) to the political upheaval in Egypt, I believe it is fair to say that official Washington seemed unprepared at first for the pressure the popular street demonstrations put on the Mubarak government.  As a matter of self protection this quickly lead to surrogates in the Congress and media questioning how much warning the IC provided the President’s national security team and our allies in Egypt and Israel.  This played out most directly at the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence (SSCI) confirmation hearing on Feb 3rd for Stephanie O’Sullivan to be Principal Deputy DNI (PDDNI) (, where the nominee was asked what the President was told about Egypt and when Chairwoman Feinstein said the IC had let the President down regarding Tunisia.

The more telling question, though, is what did Hosni Mubarak know and when did he realize his government was in danger of being threatened?  Here I believe Fred Armisen’s Mubarak satire on the January 29th Saturday Night Live (SNL) episode of Weekend Update is as accurate as it funny.  He tells us, “Egyptians have never been great with signals.  Read the Bible – we needed ten plagues before we let the Israelites go!” ( ) To SNL’s point, I am not sure King Farouk anticipated the Colonel’s Coup in 1952 that drove him into exile and Egypt, if not the world, was shocked by Anwar Sadat’s chilling assassination in 1981 that brought Mubarak to power.  Conversely, with only three leaders since 1952 (Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak) and all connected to Nasser, expecting the status quo has been the money bet for domestic Egyptian politics for the last 30 years.

It should not be forgotten that Israelis, who are usually pretty good at perceiving signals and arguably with the most at stake if a new Egyptian government moves away from the Camp David Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel, were also surprised by the intense Cairo demonstrations calling for Mubarak to leave office.  I would assert that no mainstream politician in Israel would welcome the unpredictability that would come with regime change in Egypt, especially if it results in a democratically formed government.  To wit:  Hamas winning elections in Gaza.

In defense of the US IC, it is reasonable to ask what it should have known if the two intelligence services closest to and whose governments are most impacted by the Cairo Demonstration missed or dismissed the indications of serious unrest in the “Egyptian Street?”  I suspect that the post mortems will determine that Egyptian, Israeli, and US intelligence were all relying on mostly the same sources, providing the “accepted wisdom” that there was no serious domestic threat to Mubarak’s power and through circular reporting this “accepted wisdom” was being “confirmed” as still valid.

This, however, does not mean there were not strong voices inside of the US IC saying that Mubarak was becoming unacceptably unpopular with the “Egyptian Street.”   How could he be popular given Egypt’s economic and cultural discontinuities?  Moreover,  anybody who has read Lawrence Wright’s “The Looming Tower” knows the Mubarak regime was providing stability by forcibly suppressing political opposition, so I don’t think the IC missed the macro dangers to the Mubarak regime; rather, it just didn’t know what would ignite the kindling and when.  Here we get to an inherent limitation of intelligence: warning with precision because of the number uncontrollable variables.  Despite all of its resources, the IC can warn the building superintendent that there is a gas leak in the basement, but there is actually little such a warning can do to keep someone from entering the basement and inadvertently or otherwise striking a match.

So I am willing to accept that the US IC did as well as could be reasonably expected with regard to warning about the dangers faced by the Mubarak regime.  That said I am not sure, based on the following unresearched list, that US IC is much better at interpreting signals than Armisen’s SNL Mubarak caricature when it comes to anticipating regime change in authoritarian states with strategic implications for US national security.

Ø  Various leaders over the course of the Vietnam War

Ø  Shah of Iran

Ø  Marcos in the Philippines

Ø   Chun Doo-hwan  in South Korea

Ø  The collapse of the Soviet Union

Ø  The Balkans post Tito

Ø  Iraq post Saddam

My sense is that the IC understood broadly that all of these leaders and their governments had serious internal opposition which they were ruthlessly suppressing that could lead to open revolt with little notice and/or massive instability if they left the scene due to natural or unnatural causes.  The reason for this persistent IC blind spot is well documented in my view:  the IC lacks deep historical, cultural, political, and economic knowledge about countries of importance to the United States.  Part of this is caused by the IC’s historic interest in the immediate and reliance on technology.  The balance of this blindness is the result of the IC not being willing to seek or trust the deep country knowledge that exists in academia and the media.  Even more frustrating is that at least some of this academic expertise is already on the government payroll at places such as the Naval Post Graduate School, the war colleges and the military academies.

Getting back to the ODNI and Chairman Rogers, the Congressional oversight committees would be well served to take a hard look in light of the IC’s performance on Egypt at the organizational changes DNI Clapper is making and support them.  Establishing a Director of National Intelligence for Integration along with various National Intelligence Manager (NIMs) for specific countries, regions, or topics strikes me as a sound organizational approach for improving IC situational awareness on strategic issues that can be conveyed to policy makers without spending more money for sensors, collectors or analysts.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

Share Your Thoughts:

Egypt is another example of a problem no one wanted to happen and certainly didn't want to expend time and resources on given other pressing issues. The IC's larger problem is not understanding and managing capacity for it's mission - providing decision advantage - and being able to communicate to decision makers (at operational and policy levels) what intelligence can not be provided. No amount of technology or even people will enable the IC to avoid surprise, but a new focus on mission management would help.

Tony thanks! Besides agreeing with you,I hope I was clear that I am optimistic about the mission management changes Jim Clapper and Robert Cardillo are bringing to the IC joemaz

Joemaz, Same problem, same challenges, different station. While we cannot predict the future as suggested by then Secretary Rumsfeld (tell me what I need to know before I need to know it) in 2001, another restructuring of IC analytical nodes is unlikely a fix. We have been through this so many times before your list plus other strongmen in areas vital to our long term security, such as eastern Europe and Latin America and we still cannot provide the advance warning to our leadership for not just decision advantage, but also for our security. We, as an IC (over the past 40-plus years in my direct experience), continue to analyze developments in other countries and regions through a biased US lens. This is not a fault, but it must be an understanding. We look at Egyptian/Romania/Soviet/Balkan/etc developments based on our American experiences and not from within the perspectives, experiences and ideals of those in the countries/regions in evolution/revolution. Can a US raised and educated IC Egyptian analyst, say with an MA in Middle Eastern studies from a mid-western university, really understand the dynamics involved within the Egyptian population and on the streets of Cairo? Even the best, most accurate reporting, will be biased in collection, translation to the written and in analysis. We know how to fix this, have known for years. This includes hiring people who have been raised on the streets of foreign countries (we say its a clearance issue); dedicating years, even decades, of education actually on the streets of countries in question; 5/5 truly native fluency in street language(s); and creating career paths for IC analysts which reward this type of knowledge and experience. So far, we have been unable to accomplish this and its not the ICs fault. American social system, in part, stresses advancement over experience and skills in understanding other cultures. A Soviet style American charm school or long-term illegals are impractical. State Departments system for career diplomats that also stresses advancement and diverse assignments while developing language skills suitable for policy level intercourse is also not suitable for an IC analyst. We do some of this in the military FAOs, attaches, Special Ops with in-country experience but again compromised by the need to advance and requirement for career breadth both understandable. Until we resolve how to educate and develop a country/regional analyst who is in total empathy with the people of a country we will continue to be lacking in understanding political transitions like that happing in Egypt. We will asking the same questions when North Korea implodes and surprises us overnight.

Ted, thank you. Your comments are thoughtful and constructive as usual. We both know regional expertis requires investing people in a country or region or at least ready access to those who spending lots of time in a country region. Retired MG Scales refers to these kinds of people as intelligence scouts joemaz

Thanks for the great thoughts Joe. More recent events show there is something fundamental going on. Maybe President Bush had it right on some level when he stated the peoples of these countries too deserved, would long for, and somehow in their own way seek freedoms. Leads to a real hard question - what do we do about it? I'm not sure the average person on the street loves the US or the US Gov, nor would welcome our involvement. What a great set of real life real time lessons in the need for, methods of, use of, and inherent limitations of intelligence.

Dan, thanks! You are right the hard question is what to do. President Bush was right about the fundamental urge for representative if not democratic government in the middle east. Tom Friedman warned years ago in "The World is Flat" that the US was on the wrong side by supporting autocratic Muslim regimes to keep the oil flowing. Bin Laden too was targeting these regimes because of their secularity and involvement with the West. The conundrum here for the US has been the conflict between our national values (human rights, personal and political freedom, capitalism) and our national interest (stability in the oil producing regions of the world and keeping the Arab world from attacking Israel. Thanks again for the comments Dan joemaz