Monday, February 14, 2011
Bill Nolte

           One of two things has to happen for Stephanie O’Sullivan, principal deputy DNI designate.  Either her luck or her timing needs to improve.  Having one’s confirmation hearing take place when members of the Senate are in arms about the Intelligence Community’s failure to warn of the crisis in Egypt makes those hearings and the principal witness therein targets of opportunity for folks whose capacity for retrospective prediction is, as always, flawless. 

            I confess to not being read in for years on intelligence involving Egypt.  But I would bet a fair amount that policy makers have received repeated analyses from the Intelligence Community about the fragility – or more appropriately – the brittleness of the Mubarak regime.  (Michael  Hayden’s CNN Op-Ed of February 8 supports that wager.)  Brittle may truly be the correct word to describe regimes of this sort:  Aging autocrat, ruling over a frustrated and discontented population, given to thoughts of a dynastic succession.  This was not exactly a formula for success when Oliver Cromwell tried it in mid-17th century England.  It is true that exceptions exist, Syria, at least for now, being one of them.   But again, I’m prepared to suggest that the analytic components of the Intelligence Community, on more than one occasion, have “warned” of Egypt’s structural problems, of the decreasing legitimacy of the regime, and of the unlikelihood of reforming such a regime from within, even if the need for such action is acknowledged.  Henry Kissinger noted years ago, in light of events in Iran in the 1970s, that mounting the tiger was immensely less difficult than performing the dismount.

            And why blame the Intelligence Community anyway?  As noted above, I suspect they were not shocked that the dam burst in Egypt.  Any number of academics and journalists have written of the subject for years.  Jackson Diehl, in the Washington Post (February 9) points to the warnings from the Working Group on Egypt.  Did the policy community ignore these warnings?  Or is it more likely that they found themselves confronted with a problem with few if any short-term solutions.  Great powers often deal with aging or collapsing client states; few have figured out a way to deal with this circumstance well or painlessly. 

Did the Congress do any better than the Intelligence Committee in warning on Egypt?  How many hearings have they held?  How many congressional delegations have visited Egypt in recent years?  Didn’t they pick up a clue from embassy staff, from walking the streets, from meeting and talking with Egyptians?  The Congress should not be judged more harshly or held more accountable than intelligence officers or executive policy makers. 

Nor, however, should they get a pass.  We have been here before, when members, even distinguished members, of the House and Senate blamed the Intelligence Community for failing to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Subsequently, the late Ernest May of Harvard studied intelligence, academic, and journalistic work on the last years of the Soviet Union and concluded that the intelligence agencies did at least as well as these other expert groups.

 But diagnosis and warning do not equate to predicting the future.  Nor, in many if not most instances, can they. The Community did not predict the crisis in Egypt, at least in terms of exact date or proximate triggering event.  Then again, it does not seem that Egyptian or Israeli intelligence, closer to the scene than U.S. services, did any better.  If Egyptian intelligence analysts did have this in mind, one must concede, it’s certain they did not put it in the form of a “Dear Mr. President, the game is up!” note.

                In none of my analytic assignments was I ever issued a crystal ball.  Most legitimate professions, including intelligence, would as a professional standard, make clear that diagnosis, warning, and prediction are very different concepts.   A cardiologist would easily note that an 82-year old patient with advanced arterial disease, a high “bad” cholesterol rate, a two-pack a day habit, and a fast food preference that would put a middle school student to shame, would probably not make it to 90.  He or she would no doubt communicate this to the patient.  But predicting the day when the nearly inevitable happened would still be impossible.  It would almost certainly also be unprofessional.  Medical ethics do not, to the best of my knowledge, permit physicians to give patients “over/under” odds.

Should the Intelligence Community have diagnosed the Egyptian condition?  Of course.  Should they alerted policy makers to this condition.  I’m certain they did.  But could they have predicted the spread of the Tunisian virus?  And how fast and how far it would spread?  That is trickier.  (This cannot be the subject here, but for interesting reaction to events in Cairo, from a warning perspective, take note of China’s decision to limit coverage of those events in China.) 

The United States has much at stake in Egypt.  The Sadat legacy of peace with Israel must be foremost in our concerns.  Beyond that, however, this resource-poor but people rich (in numbers and talent) nation, heir to one of the great civilizations, still offers the hope of a positive outcome after what promises, at best, to be a difficult transition.  But if the actions of the crowds in Tahrir Square in protecting the Egyptian Museum say anything, it may be that this is at heart a patriotic revolution that could ultimately lead to a stable, even democratic (or roughly so) Egypt worthy of reclaiming its leadership in the Arab world.

William Nolte is chairman of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee and a research professor in the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Share Your Thoughts:


You know I agree with your underlying premise about the granularity of predicting when something will happen that the IC is warning about.

The problem for the IC, however, remains optics. When the Director of CIA says to SSCI interloucters regarding when Mubarak will depart "I am reading the same press reports you are Senator" even informed people will reasonably ask so why does the IC need $80b a year to read the news papers.

This was the time for Director Panetta to educate both the members of SSCI and the public with an answer something like this. Based on all the varibles we have been able to discern through press and classified reporting it seems unlikely Mubarak can remain in power, but because of these variables it is also difficult to predict with any certainty when the forces at play will force President Mubarak to step aside