February 4, 2011
Mark Stout, SPY Historian
Some senators have started blaming the Intelligence Community for not providing warning of the revolution in Egypt. Senator Dianne Feinstein, for instance, said at a recent hearing “The President, the Secretary of State and the Congress are making policy decisions on Egypt, and those policymakers deserve timely intelligence analysis.” She went on “I have doubts whether the Intelligence Community lived up to its obligations in this area.” Apparently Feinstein and other Senators are particularly concerned about whether the CIA made appropriate use of open source materials. “You listen to TV…and everybody’s talking about how this evolved from a few people using Facebook and it suddenly became apparent that they were going to have tremendous turnout [for the protests]. That, right then and there, would signal some concern.”
The Senators’ criticisms may or may not be sound; it is hard to know from the outside, though as we shall see, the Intelligence Community has already started to speak in its own defense. In any event, however, it is important to understand what types of intelligence warning one can realistically expect of such a revolution.
Intelligence experts make a distinction between “puzzles” and “mysteries.” (See also Malcolm Gladwell on the subject.) The short version is that puzzles can be put together by collecting enough puzzle pieces. More collection is the key to solving puzzles and those solutions are definitive. Mysteries, by contrast, cannot be definitively solved and often more collection won’t help. Indeed, it may muddy the waters.
Plots and coups are likely to be puzzles (or the puzzle’s close cousin, the “secret”). Spontaneous group events displaying emergent properties, however, are mysteries. For instance, will there be an unplanned riot tomorrow in your town? Probably not, but you can’t say no (or yes) for sure. Will the stock market fall a thousand points tomorrow? Probably not, but again it’s hard to know for certain. In the case of Egypt, the whole thing was set off when a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire. That event rippled through the Middle East and soon crowds were forming in Egypt, made up of Egyptians who just days before had been living lives of quiet and resigned desperation without a revolutionary thought in their heads. Nobody could have predicted this chain of events in any convincing manner, especially given the fact that the Egyptian government has in the past been quite effective at squelching protest.
So, the fact that the Intelligence Community did not warn President Obama that in January 2011 there would be a self-immolation in Tunisia immediately followed by a revolution in Egypt should not bother American voters and taxpayers.
If the Intelligence Community can’t warn of such things, then what use are they? Well, what it could have done is tell the President months or even years ago that conditions in Egypt were ripe for a major outbreak of civil unrest that could threaten the regime and that the precipitating event could come unexpectedly at any time. Given such an assessment, the President could then do what he’s paid to do: weigh the risks and make a policy decision about what if anything the US Government should o.
Did the Intelligence Community issue such a warning? Stephanie O’Sullivan, a senior CIA official up for confirmation for the position of Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence told the Senators that the CIA had issued such a warning late last year: “We have warned of instability [but] we didn’t know precisely what the triggering mechanism would be.”
O’Sullivan’s statement is unlikely to be the last word on this issue, but the sort of analysis that she describes would appear to represent an intelligence success rather than an intelligence failure.