Top U.S. intelligence officials, facing criticism in Congress, on Wednesday defended their agencies’ reporting on the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt but pledged to do better in the future.
“Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known or predicted,” James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“What intelligence can do in such cases is reduce, but certainly not completely eliminate, uncertainty for decision-makers. But we are not clairvoyant.”
CIA Director Leon Panetta said his agency has set up a 35-member task force to examine how future unrest in sensitive regions could erupt and to assess potential outcomes.
Much more attention will be paid to how the Internet and social media can spark and affect protest movements, they said, although Panetta cautioned about the vast new piles of data that experts must pore over.
“The real challenge is … going through the diversity of languages, going through the different sites that are out there,” he said. “This involves a tremendous amount of analysis.”
U.S. spy agencies have been criticized in the past for not knitting together reports that could have given warning of major events, ranging from the collapse of the Soviet Union to al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
In the case of September 11 and, more recently, the failed bombing of a U.S. airliner in December 2009, investigations showed U.S. agencies collected clues that could have disrupted the attacks well in advance but failed to connect the dots.
Tunisia was not ‘Top 10′ Concern’
Senior officials have strongly denied there were any intelligence failures over the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt — despite criticism from some lawmakers that the agencies’ reports were sometimes less informative than news stories.
The two spy chiefs acknowledged U.S. agencies offered little if any advance warning when unrest erupted in Tunisia in January. But Clapper, who supervises 16 frontline spy agencies and serves as President Barack Obama’s chief intelligence adviser, pointed to the limits of spycraft.
“We’re not like Sherman Williams paint. We don’t cover the earth equally. So frankly Tunisia was probably not up there on our top 10 countries that we were watching closely,” Clapper said. “Obviously we are going to work on that.”
Two sources who routinely read analytical papers by U.S. intelligence agencies said it would be unfair to criticize them for not being able to predict how the initial events in Tunisia would set off a chain reaction that, within days, would lead to the collapse of its government and the exile of its president.
But the sources said they were disappointed at the material generated after the Tunisian government fell, which tried to consider implications for other countries, particularly Egypt.
A senior U.S. intelligence official refuted the criticism, telling Reuters that in the 10 days between the collapse of the Tunisian government and the eruption of protests in Egypt, U.S. agencies produced many reports “that examined the implications for the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.”
Some of the papers, the official said, went only to the president and a small group of senior officials. Others were more widely distributed to officials authorized to read highly classified intelligence materials.