The Magazine

Another Intelligence Failure?

What did the CIA know and when did it know it?

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By ABE SHULSKY and GARY SCHMITT
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And yet, by the time of Ben Ali’s departure, it had become clear that the Tunisian Army was unwilling to “crush” the demonstrators. In fact, the army had its own interests, which were not aligned with Ben Ali’s, nor with those of his wife’s family, whose avariciousness had in fact eaten into the military’s own business interests. Ben Ali’s final decision to leave Tunisia may not have been predictable, but some of the pressures on him and the players involved in the final resolution of the crisis could have been known and assessed.

In the case of Egypt, if news reports of administration decision-making are accurate, then it appears the White House was constantly playing catch-up. To be sure, the fact that the administration was reacting to events rather than driving them reflected the administration’s own initial policy ambivalence about what it actually wanted to see occur. But it also appears that the CIA, in particular, knew less about the internal dynamics of the regime than it might have. Up until a few weeks ago, the -agency’s priority had been to maintain friendly relations with Egyptian security and intelligence agencies in order to enhance information sharing concerning the mutual threats of Islamist terrorism and Iran, a priority that perhaps blinded it to other key issues. As one former senior Agency official explained in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall, “We pulled back more and more, and relied on liaison to let us know what was going on.”

No doubt, in the months ahead, the congressional intelligence committees will be reviewing how the CIA and others performed during the past few weeks. If those reviews are to be helpful, however, the committees will first have to have in mind the right standard. What’s important isn’t whether the intelligence community failed to predict the timing of the events that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, but rather the quality of the support that it gave to policymakers as those crises unfolded.

The American public and our -policymakers have long wanted to believe that if our intelligence were just good enough, we would be immune to political or strategic surprises or shocks. This is an unrealistic goal. In the wake of the 1964 coup against Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, one CIA analyst defended himself against criticism for missing the event by explaining that he had consulted with the world’s leading Kremlinologist, one N. S. Khrushchev, who assured him that he had been surprised as well.

Abe Shulsky is a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and Gary Schmitt is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; they are coauthors of Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence.

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