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US, Europe lacked intelligence on Egypt and Tunisia

The mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia apparently took the West completely by surprise, and now, parliaments are wondering whether their intelligence services failed to do their job.

Person peering through Venetian blinds with a flashlight

The credibility of Western spy networks is in the limelight once again

Washington's top military officer has acknowledged that the United States was caught off guard by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, but said the armed forces were now closely monitoring developments in the region.

Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted in a series of interviews that the unfolding events in the Middle East had "taken not just us, but many people by surprise."

The other "people" mentioned by Mullen, happen to be from the US intelligence community. The CIA, in particular, has been the brunt of criticism by Congressional lawmakers for failing to predict the unrest in the Arab world.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, grilled a CIA official in a hearing last Thursday over when it informed the White House of the emerging crisis, calling the information "lacking."

CIA defends information policy

Man mopping emblem at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia

The CIA may need to do more to polish up its image

Stephanie O'Sullivan, who has been nominated by President Obama to the country's second highest intelligence post, defended her agency and told Feinstein that the president had been warned "at the end of last year." But she added that it was not clear what the "triggering mechanism" for that instability would be.

"The events in Egypt are rapidly unfolding and we're now working to track them on the ground," she said.

O'Sullivan said the CIA took the demonstrations seriously, but admitted that US spy agencies had expected, in the case of Tunisia, that the country's security forces would have provided more support for Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ultimately fled the country with his family to Saudi Arabia.

The White House has sought to tone down the recriminations. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the US intelligence community had been warning for years about instability in the Middle East.

"The president expects the intelligence community to provide relevant, timely, and accurate analysis of events as they unfold, and that's exactly what's been done throughout this crisis," he said.

But Feinstein, a California Democrat, told journalists after the Senate committee hearing that she had noted gaps in the collection of information. "I have doubts as to whether the intelligence community has lived up to its obligations in the area," she said.

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, center, addressing delegates at the Munich Security Conference

German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, center, addressing delegates at the Munich Security Conference

Intelligence lacking in Europe as well

The same could perhaps be said of Europe's intelligence services. At last weekend's Munich Security Conference in Germany it was clear that government leaders, their foreign and defense ministers, as well as international security experts, had been caught completely off guard by events in Egypt and Tunisia.

There is now a lot of backpedaling going on to analyze the situation and determine the strategic consequences for the region.

Germany's BND national intelligence service has been cautious in public, arguing that it is very difficult to forecast developments in Egypt because there were so many unknown factors, such as the wide variety of players and what new constellations of power could emerge.

The BND warned, however, that the revolutionary mood could quickly spread to other countries in the region, such as Jordan, Yemen and even Saudi Arabia.

But intelligence experts agreed on one issue at least: Any transition of power is full of pitfalls. The expectations of the populace are growing by the day, they said, and any new government, no matter who it is, is going to have problems fulfilling these expectations.

Author: Gregg Benzow (dpa, AFP)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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