x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

US seeks answers on failure to see Arab street protests coming

Former intelligence officials say US intelligence agencies¿ focus on counter-terrorism left the administration blindsided over strength of popular feeling in countries seen as allies.

WASHINGTON // Systemic failures in intelligence gathering left the US administration unprepared for the force of popular discontent in Tunisia and Egypt.

Analysts and former intelligence officials say US intelligence agencies' focus on counter-terrorism and excessive reliance on counterparts in allied countries left the administration blindsided and slow to respond when popular demonstrations led to the ousting of former presidents Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, both long-time US allies.

Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, earlier this month said the administration and Congress had received "no real warning" about the strength of protests in either Tunisia or Egypt.

On February 10 James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, rejected such criticism, saying the Central Intelligence Agency alone had filed more than 450 reports last year about social and economic tensions in the region.

It could not have been predicted, he said, when those tensions would unseat a leader. "We are not clairvoyant," Mr Clapper told the Senate select committee on intelligence.

Mark Perry, a Washington-based political and military analyst, said: But some analysts are not impressed with his explanation. "Their argument is that no one could have predicted this. "Really? As far back as 2002, it was clear that something was going to happen in the region. Did I expect it to happen on any given Wednesday? No. Did I expect it to happen? Absolutely."

Fred Burton, a former counter-terrorism agent with the US state department, said that even if the US was caught unprepared in Tunisia, the swift unseating of Mr Ben Ali there should have focused attention on other countries with potential for unrest, including Egypt.

Part of the problem, Mr Burton said, is that after a 30-year liaison with Egyptian intelligence services, the warning signs, if they were there, would have gone unheeded.

There have been suggestions in the US media that Barack Obama, the US president, was unhappy with the agencies' performance. In public, administration spokesmen have defended the intelligence services.

Criticism by the administration and Congress would be "disingenuous", according to a former officer with the CIA's Directorate of Operations, who served in the Middle East and spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The intel community is driven by the needs of policymakers who have been so obsessed with the threat of terrorism and not with internal instability in allied regimes governed by autocrats - our friends in the fight against terrorism."

Over the past decade, the former officer said, US intelligence agencies have been tasked to focus almost exclusively on counter-terrorism. The so-called global war on terror launched by the Bush administration after the attacks of September 11 2001 has continued under Mr Obama to "shape and distort" the intelligence collection process, he said. US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, meanwhile, have diverted intelligence resources towards supporting US troops there.

The result, he said, was a poor understanding of trends shaping Arab societies, including the role of movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah in building civil society or that played by non-political, non-violent groups such as Arab Christian churches and Sufi Muslim orders.