Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — 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 sent word to 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.
Top senators on the Intelligence Committee are asking when the president was briefed and what he was told before the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
"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.
"Was someone looking at what was going on the Internet?" she asked.
Top CIA official Stephanie O'Sullivan told senators Thursday that Obama was warned of instability in Egypt "at the end of last year." She spoke during a confirmation hearing to become the deputy director of national intelligence, the No. 2 official to Clapper.
The leading Republican on the committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, asked for a written record of the timetable of Obama's intelligence briefings. It's due to the committee in 10 days.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said it was unrealistic to expect intelligence agencies to predict what would happen in either country. "We've got to be realistic about its limits, especially regarding the complex and interactive behavior of millions of people," he said.
DNI spokeswoman Jamie Smith insisted that the intelligence community "has been closely tracking these countries and as tensions and protests built in Tunisia, it was fully anticipated that this activity could spread."
But top intelligence officials said that after Tunisia, they'd promised the White House to "do better," according to two officials briefed on the process.
White House national security staff relayed the president's disapproval over the wrong call in Tunisia to Clapper and other top intelligence officials in one of a series of high-level meetings in mid-January, prior to the outbreak of the demonstrations in Egypt, according to one official.
In the aftermath of the botched call on Tunisia, the intelligence community widened the warnings to the White House and the diplomatic community that the instability could spread to much of the Arab world.
The White House publicly rejected charges that intelligence agencies underperformed on Tunisia and said the intelligence community warned the president that Tunisia's protests could inspire copycats.
"Did anyone in the world predict that a fruit vendor in Tunisia would light himself on fire and spark a revolution? No," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor.
"But had the diplomatic and intelligence community been reporting for decades about simmering unrest in the region? About demographic changes including a higher proportion of youth? About broad frustration with economic conditions and a lack of a political outlet to exercise these frustrations? Absolutely," Vietor said.
They specifically warned that unrest in Egypt would probably gain momentum, said another official familiar with the intelligence, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
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