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.
Of major concern to U.S. intelligence officials is the possibility that the political upheaval in Egypt could be "hijacked" by the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned but politically popular religious and political movement that provides social and charitable support for much of Egypt's poor.
The Tunisian surprise, followed by the worsening events in Cairo, has led some intelligence officials to question whether the hunt for al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, has starved other parts of the intelligence arena of resources and hampered long-term strategic analysis and prediction.
"Both the American and Israeli intelligence communities will have to ask themselves what they missed in Tunisia and Egypt," said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. "Are we too fixated on terrorism and Iran today and not enough on the broad generational changes in the region?"
Retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer also defended the intelligence world for concentrating on the al-Qaida terrorism nexus from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. "Those are the people who are going to reach out and kill Americans," he said.
Scheuer said the CIA has devoted resources to Egypt for years, fostering such a close working relationship with its intelligence service that the CIA regularly turned over suspects of Egyptian origin to its intelligence service, before there was a U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold suspects.
Former CIA analyst Charlie Allen said multiple national intelligence estimates had warned successive U.S. administrations that Egypt and Tunisia were brutal dictatorships with all the ingredients for revolt. The volatile situation outlined in those assessments of foreign nations included "youth bulges" of frustrated and often unemployed men under the age of 25, Allen said.
But Allen, speaking at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies' annual terrorism review, said intelligence analysts cannot predict the spark that turns festering anger into full-scale revolt.