US intel missed Tunisia, Egypt uprisings

Did the popular uprisings in North Africa catch American intelligence by surprise?  CBS reports that both the White House and Capitol Hill have begun expressing “disappointment” in the intel community for providing no warning of instability in two American allies:

U.S. intelligence agencies are drawing criticism from the Oval Office and Capitol Hill that they failed to warn of revolts in Egypt and the downfall of an American ally in Tunisia.

President Barack Obama has told National Intelligence Director James Clapper that he was “disappointed with the intelligence community” over its failure to predict the outbreak of demonstrations would lead to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, according to one U.S. official familiar with the exchanges, which were expressed to Clapper through White House staff.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence, said there was little warning before Egypt’s riots as well.

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein wants to know what the President knew and when he knew it, or rather, what the President didn’t know and why:

“These events should not have come upon us with the surprise that they did,” the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in an interview. “There should have been much more warning” of the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, she said, in part because demonstrators were using the Internet and social media to organize.

To be fair, CBS also reports that intel has been alerting lawmakers for years to the simmering opposition in both Egypt and Tunisia.  They may have missed the Facebook and Twitter organizing messages — and one has to wonder why no one seems to have paid attention to that — but the pressures that finally erupted aren’t exactly a surprise to anyone.  Both Hosni Mubarak and Ben-Ali are and were oppressive dictators, with the latter also being particularly ostentatious about it.

If Obama is “disappointed,” then it may be because he has a poor memory.  After all, he chose Cairo as the stage for his speech to the Muslim world, talking about freedom and liberty.  Did he choose that setting for Egypt’s (nonexistent) liberal attitudes towards political expression, or to make a broader point about the necessity of our allies as well as our enemies to liberalize their political systems? If it wasn’t the latter, then Obama chose … poorly.

Our intel services have missed other key crises in the past, but this looks more like an attempt at blameshifting rather than a serious analysis of failure.  Partnering with dictators always entails the risk that the oppressed populations will toss aside one of “our SOBs,” and in fact history shows that to be almost an inevitability.  The US government should have prepared itself for these eventualities, as should the intel community, so let’s not pretend this comes as a great shock to either.