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Obama Faults Spy Agencies’ Performance in Gauging Mideast Unrest, Officials Say

February 7, 2011

The New York Times, 4 Feb 2011: President Obama has criticized American spy agencies over their performance in predicting and analyzing the spreading unrest in the Middle East, according to current and former American officials.

The president was specifically critical of intelligence agencies for misjudging how quickly the unrest in Tunisia would lead to the downfall of the country’s authoritarian government, the officials said.

The officials offered few details about the president’s concerns, but said that Mr. Obama had not ordered any major changes inside the intelligence community, which has a budget of more than $80 billion a year. On Friday, a White House spokesman said spy agencies had given Mr. Obama “relevant, timely and accurate analysis” throughout the crisis in the Middle East.

But questions about the recent performance of spy agencies expose a tension that has played out since the C.I.A.’s founding in 1947: how to balance the task of analyzing events overseas to warn officials in Washington about looming crises with the mission of carrying out covert operations around the globe.

Some officials have focused their criticism on intelligence assessments last month that concluded, despite demonstrations in Tunisia, that the security forces of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali would defend his government. Instead, the military and the police did not, and Mr. Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia.

One American official familiar with classified intelligence assessments defended the spy agencies’ Tunisia analysis.

“Everyone recognized the demonstrations in Tunisia as serious,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified intelligence reports. “What wasn’t clear even to President Ben Ali was that his security forces would quickly choose not to support him.”

One former American official said that in recent weeks Mr. Obama urged intelligence officials to ensure that spy agencies were devoting as much effort to “long-term analysis” as they were to carrying out operations against Al Qaeda, including the C.I.A.’s bombing campaign using armed drone aircraft.

On Thursday, senior lawmakers pressed a top C.I.A. official on Capitol Hill about whether Mr. Obama had been given enough warning about the perils of the growing demonstrations in Cairo, and whether spy agencies had monitored social networking sites to gauge the extent of the uprising.

The same day, America’s senior military officer said in a television interview that officials in Washington had been surprised by how rapidly unrest had spread from Tunisia toEgypt.

“It has taken not just us, but many people, by surprise,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an appearance on “The Daily Show.”

Several American officials said that after Tunisia’s government collapsed, intelligence analysts renewed their focus on gauging the impact that the chaos could have on Egypt, America’s most important ally in the Arab world.

Some C.I.A. veterans said it was wrong to conclude that because the spy agency had stepped up paramilitary operations in recent years, it had lost focus on the job of analyzing global events for the White House and Congress.

“The Egypt analysts in the C.I.A. aren’t picking targets in Pakistan; that’s just not the way the agency operates,” said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former C.I.A. assistant director for analysis.

Still, Mr. Lowenthal said that intelligence officials for decades had to endure the wrath of American presidents who blamed them for misjudging the events of the day — and that it was their obligation to accept the criticism.

“If you are an intelligence officer, you say, ‘Yes sir, thank you very much, sir,’ ” he said.

 

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