“Did Anyone Know a Fruit Vendor in Tunisia Was Going to Light Himself on Fire?”

That’s the question NSC spokesperson Tommy Vietor used yesterday to deflect Senate Intelligence Committee concerns that the Administration was taken by surprise by the events in Egypt.

Did anyone in the world know in advance that a fruit vendor in Tunisia was going to light himself on fire and start a revolution? No. But for decades, the intelligence community and diplomats have been reporting on unrest in the region that was a result of economic, demographic and political conditions.

That’s pretty much the answer Stephanie O’Sullivan gave to the committee as they grilled her yesterday (though without the snide reference to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose self-immolation sparked the uprising there).

“We warned of instability,” said Stephanie O’Sullivan, who has been nominated to become the nation’s No. 2 intelligence official. The hearing was on her nomination to be principal deputy director of the Office of Director of National Intelligence. But, she added, “we didn’t know what the triggering mechanism would be.”

It’s also what Paul Pillar told Spencer about warnings of the Egyptian uprising.

“The ingredients of upheaval were there for a long time,” says Paul Pillar, who was the intelligence community’s top Mideast analyst from 2000 to 2005, “but it was impossible to predict in advance what particular catalyzing events would set stuff off.”

But that response doesn’t address three issues.

First, there’s DiFi’s complaint that the intelligence community was not monitoring open source resources to track the Egyptian opposition.

Feinstein set a skeptical tone at the opening of the hearing, saying Obama and other policymakers deserved timely intelligence on major world events. Referring to Egypt, she said, “I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligations in this area.”

After the hearing, Feinstein said she was particularly concerned that the CIA and other agencies had ignored open-source intelligence on the protests, a reference to posts on Facebook and other publicly accessible Web sites used by organizers of the protests against the Mubarak government.

Speaking more broadly about intelligence on turmoil in the Middle East, Feinstein said, “I’ve looked at some intelligence in this area.” She described it as “lacking . . . on collection.”

Our intelligence community makes a great deal of effort to track the public internet communications of Islamic extremists. But DiFi suggests they’re not doing the same to track potential sources of instability around the world. In my next post, I’ll show that she may have a point.

In addition, the response that the intelligence community can’t predict when a fruit vendor will self-immolate and with it light up the whole Middle East ignores a point that Pillar admitted.

At the same time, the CIA is really, really close to its Egyptian counterparts. It relied on Egypt’s spymaster, now Mubarak’s vice president, to carry out a torture program against terrorist suspects. But Pillar denies that closeness led the CIA to rely on rosy pictures of a stable country provided by Egypt’s spies.“They take with grain of salt what [Egyptian spies] have to say,” Pillar says. “Anybody in the State Department or intelligence community following a country like Egypt is highly conscious of that as an occupational hazard. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they have great sources inside an opposition movement, but they’re aware of this as a potential shortcoming.” [my emphasis]

Pillar admits that we didn’t necessarily have great sources within the opposition movement. And he may be suggesting that that is because of our particularly close ties to Egypt’s intelligence services and thugs like Omar Suleiman. Particularly if DiFi’s complaint about not tracking social media is correct, that’s sort of going to make it hard to predict a revolution.

Finally (and this is a point as salient for the complaining Senators as for the intelligence community), what if we did know people were talking about a revolution? What would we have done?

Given the Administration’s caution about dispensing of its ally Mubarak (something I’m not terribly surprised about), what do the Senators really think we would have done, as a country, had we thought Mubarak’s rule was unstable? Egypt has been such a cornerstone of our foreign policy for so long, I highly doubt it would have changed our policy of gently trying to nudge Mubarak to reform without trying to offend him.

  1. kbskiff says:

    I hope when revolution comes to the USA it happens just as fast as it did in Egypt.

    I’m sure the spooks will be just as clueless as to the reasons as they were about Egypt.

  2. Arbusto says:

    Didn’t this uprising catch the Mossad, DGSE and MI6 flat footed also. How much more money and how many more agents and analysts do we need to predict, with any certainty, a flash point when citizens take to the streets?
    See Russ Feingolds statement:

    I remember that a CIA analyst, under Reagan, read Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising. The scenario disturbed him enough he took it to his superiors who were similarly disturbed. Clancy was invited to a Q and A that resulted in a new action plan by the CIA and DoD. Also because of his service, Clancy met with Reagan who thanked him for his insights.

    Instead of looking at the tail that wagged the dog, when will the US, England and others, tell despots that their time is over and to start planning for a transition to popular governance, even if, like Lebanon, parties the US dislikes are elected. The US is becoming the tail anyway and could actually remain more relevant and liked in our post empire days.

  3. Mary says:

    Too much focus on assassination squads and drones and not nearly enough focus on education and social justice.

    Thanks for the Feingold link Arbusto.

  4. JTMinIA says:

    To what extent (if any) do you think Mubarak’s choice of partner-with-US-in-torture Suleiman was meant as a warning to let’s-not-look-backwards Obama that the US had better stay quiet or behind Mubarak if the US wants certain secrets to remain so?

    • emptywheel says:

      I’m not entirely convinced the US didn’t green light the choice–some of teh WL cables talk about us pushing him to appoint a VP, and Suleiman is in that mix.

      So whether Mubarak made the choice on his own or with kibbitzing, he knows he picked someone palatable to the US and Israeli status quo, and also one who has a lot on us.

      It has nothing to do with what Egyptians want, of course, but it is a shrewd choice to placate the Americans and Israelis.

      • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

        It has nothing to do with what Egyptians want, of course, but it is a shrewd choice to placate the Americans and Israelis.


        Although from a longer view (say, sitting on the rings of Saturn…) this is also just perpetuating the mess by other means; the cassettes and videotapes and records are destroyed, while the main Spymaster becomes Acting Pres. So he can continue to make sure even more cassettes and videos are destroyed; the paper shredders around Cairo must be working overtime these past days.

        It must be wild to be a fly on the wall and watch Obama and Clinton hampered by Tel Aviv. I have the sense just from hopping around the Toobz and the online news feeds that Obama must be having to hold a lot of hands in Tel Aviv, as well as in Cairo.

        If nothing else, Obama – no matter what one thinks of him – was born in 1960 or so. He’s in his late 40s, grew up around surfers and beaches. He’s dealing with hardnosed ideologues who came of age before he was born, and who appear to see boogeymen under their beds, precisely because they’ve been so treacherous and inhumane.

        We certainly do live in interesting times.
        More than once this past week, I’ve thought that if GWBush and Cheney were still in the WH, the world would be completely f*cked. They oversaw years of this crap, and irrespective of Obama’s flaws, he’s left to mop up one hell of a mess.

        Part of that ‘mess’ appears to include the notion that the CIA doesn’t pay attention to Facebook. Jeebus.

  5. b2020 says:

    Feinstein is complaining that Obama did not receive intel to – do what?

    Steeple fingers more expediently?
    Tip off the US satrap in charge of Egypt?
    Have Eqyptian PayPal accounts blocked?

    Big O knew just as well as Feinstein that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in Egypt have been bad for decades and are getting worse, and that interference in service of US foreign policy – such as military aid distorting national “incentive structures”, or convenient torture services “rendered”, not to mention the despicable continuity of bullshitting regarding the illegal occupation of Palestine – has done nothing to help, and quite possibly made an untenable trend much worse, much sooner.

    In other words, neither Bygones Habeas Obama nor posturers like the Senior Moment Senator from California need any more information than what was readily available to the US government for the last 30 years – *unless* all the whining is about missing photo ops due to insufficient preparation for the revolution press conferences, or because these pillars of the collapsing status quo really, really would have wanted to help preempting the people of Egypt and Tunisia from rattling the cage in such a public and potentially effective manner.

    All of which is to say, why in heaven’s name waste time in fine-parsing whether Feinstein, of all people, has a point, and whether said point fits on the tip of a needle alongside a dozen angels?

    It’s not like Obama, Feinstein, or anybody else would responds to signs of domestic unrest – on Facebook or elsewhere – by doing anything but deploying the National Guard. Maybe they can get some paramilitary advisers from Egypt to help out with their preparedness issues.

  6. timbo says:

    If the CIA did have sources within the opposition, they sure wouldn’t mention it in a public Congressional hearing. Seriously, any US intelligence service is not going to compromise a source or a movement by talking about intelligence assets in open session.

    This does not negate the fact that the CIA may not have provided timely analysis in the case of Tunisia and/or Egypt. Personally, I think the the Egyptian analysts were pretty much aware that Egypt was in a dicey place and has been for some time. The question was ‘when’, not ‘if’. And, as pointed out, there may well not be an effective “index” of what might set off a revolt/series of protest/coup to topple a regime that is rotten…one may have to wait for someone to get the snowball rolling downhill. The big question is…did CIA know how steep the hill was and how much snow was on the ground?

  7. dustbunny44 says:

    They’re still using the “no one could have predicted” excuse made popular during the Mission Accomplished era of US politics?
    If no one they know could have predicted then it’s time to find them another job, since that’s their job, to predict things like this.