How Intelligence Gets in the Way of Common Sense

The Obama Administration’s Egyptian Debacle

Here's the truth of it: You don't need an $80-billion-plus budget and a morass of 17 intelligence agencies to look at the world and draw a few intelligent conclusions. Nor do you need $80 billion-plus and that same set of agencies to be caught off-guard by developments on our sometimes amazing planet.

Last Thursday, Leon Panetta, director of the CIA, assured a House Intelligence panel that he had "received reports" that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was likely leavin' town on the next train for Yuma. When that didn't happen, the Agency clarified the situation. Those "reports" hadn't, in fact, been secret intelligence updates, but "news accounts." In other words, billions of bucks later, Panetta was undoubtedly watching Al Jazeera (or the equivalent) just like the rest of us peasants.

After 30 years as Washington's eyes and ears in Cairo, it turns out that the CIA didn't have an insider's clue about Mubarak's psychology. No wonder our fabulous "community" of intelligence analysts and operatives was napping when history came calling. And maybe it's fortunate for us that the future can't be bought, that no matter how much money a declining superpower puts on the barrelhead, it's as likely to be surprised as any of us; in fact, deeply entrenched in the stalest of Washington thinking, our intelligence agencies may have been even more surprised than most of us by what the future had in store. In our startlingly brain-dead American world, that realization in itself should have felt like a breath of fresh air as one startling Egyptian event after another unfolded.

Here's the truth of it (part 2): You don't need to spend a dollar these days to get clued in on the winds of change sweeping the Middle East. Anyone can stream Al Jazeera English on a home computer and be a jump ahead of the CIA any day of the week.

In other words, next time around, President Obama, remember that the U.S. Intelligence Community stands between you and common sense, so just start looking. You can do it all by yourself. It's free and it's better than any of those confabs you were eternally huddled in with your national security crew after which you issued confused, cautious, ill-timed, ill-coordinated statements which, until the last hypocritical seconds, left the U.S. on the side of an Egyptian klepto-autocrat.

Of course, your vice president, Joe Biden, pitched in by assuring the PBS News Hour audience that Mubarak was no dictator and so didn't have to go down. Meanwhile, your ace secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, with her own set of crack advisors and a top-notch intelligence crew, having watched Tunisian ruler Zene Ben Ali go down the tubes, launched Washington's reactions to Egyptian events by assuring one and all that the Mubarak regime was "stable." She then reassured the world that Mubarak and his wife were "friends of my family." Yikes! With friends like that...

As a start, Mr. President, you can save the American taxpayer tons of money by slashing to the bone the ridiculous labyrinth of organizations which pass for "intelligence" in Washington. As a former community organizer, all you have to do is keep an eye out for communities organizing themselves. After all, in these last weeks Egypt may have been transformed into one of the largest organized communities in history. Under the circumstances, it shouldn't have been quite so hard to figure out what side U.S. "interests" were really on.

Wouldn't it be great, the next time around, if Washington came down on the right side of history even 30 seconds before history banged it on the head? Whatever now happens in Egypt (and it's no easy trick putting a mobilized people back to sleep), we're on a new planet and you'll adjust better with less "intelligence."

As for stability? Honestly, is that what you want in one of the repressively creepy zones on the planet? If you'd like a quick explanation that goes to the heart of the matter when it comes to just how people power outwitted and out-organized "stability," check out TomDispatch regular Michael Schwartz at on how weapons of mass disruption can defeat weapons of mass destruction. While you're at it, keep in mind that old Bill Clinton mantra: it's the economy, stupid!