Loose Canons

Stupidity, Intelligence, and Egypt

Leon Panetta is the least of this administration's problems.

By 2.14.11

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If you want to understand why our power to influence world events is a shambles, you need only to listen to what came out of the White House, the CIA and the Director of National Intelligence this week in response to the crisis in Egypt.

Start with a point so basic that even liberals should agree with it: if you lack timely, accurate and expertly-analyzed intelligence on other peoples and nations, the making of foreign policy is reduced to mere guesswork. American policymakers have -- roughly since Jimmy Carter and his CIA director, Stansfield Turner, decided that we really don't need spies -- been reduced to guessing what the world is doing.

With President Obama in charge of the guesswork, American policy is apparently being made in disregard of what little intelligence there is. As I wrote on Egypt last week, Obama sided with the protesters, then with Mubarak and then again with the protesters who he assumed were aiming to establish a democratic government.

Throughout the crisis, Obama was content to dramatize his pretentiousness, doing his best to imply broadly that we had an influence on the outcome which we clearly do not. He assumed, without evidence, that the protesters uniformly demanded democracy and that if Mubarak fell, democracy would result. In his statement last Friday, Obama was taking credit for Mubarak's fall and urging the Egyptian military to accomplish a quick transition to democracy.

In response, the Egyptian junta suspended the nation's constitution and dissolved its parliament. It is now reportedly forcing protesters to leave Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Too much has been made of CIA Director Leon Panetta's prediction to a congressional committee that Mubarak would be out of office on Thursday night. In the open hearing, Panetta was repeating what he'd observed on television. If he had classified intelligence that indicated Mubarak's imminent departure, he couldn't have told the committee while the television cameras focused on him.

Panetta -- a partisan Democrat with no intelligence experience -- came into the CIA job at a time when the intelligence agency was under assault by the congressional Democrats who had followed Nancy Pelosi off the cliff in condemning CIA interrogations of terrorist prisoners. To his credit, Panetta defended the spy agency as best he could. His August 2009 op-ed in the Washington Post was unprecedented. In it he condemned the "…climate of suspicion and partisanship on Capitol Hill that our intelligence officers -- and our country -- would be better off without."

Panetta and Obama -- and Bush before them -- did nothing to reform our intelligence apparatus to produce better results. That is one unspoken problem. Another is the politicization of our intelligence agencies, especially the CIA.

Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were wrongfully accused of trying to politicize intelligence to justify the Iraq war. In fact, they were trying to push CIA analysts to justify their conclusions. What they got, instead, was George Tenet's statement that the case on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."

And throughout the Bush era, the CIA was engaged in politically motivated leaks. Remember Joe Wilson's trip to Niger? As I wrote here in November 2005, Wilson's mission was a CIA setup to disprove President Bush's justification for the Iraq war. And it was only the most publicized CIA attempt to discredit Bush, along with the long series of leaks.

Last week, Obama's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, made a statement which substantially worsened the politicization of our intelligence community.

Clapper said Thursday, "The term Muslim Brotherhood is an umbrella term for a variety of movements. In the case of Egypt, a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaeda as a perversion of Islam." Even Clapper was sufficiently embarrassed that he later issued a statement that he realized the Muslim Brotherhood wasn't secular.

As I first wrote on February 2, the principal danger in the Egyptian crisis is that a strong anti-terror ally would become an Islamist state. Egypt's neighbors and Islamic radicals within it are working tirelessly to ensure that post-Mubarak Egypt follows the path of Turkey, from a strong secular state into Islamic radicalism. The Muslim Brotherhood -- a global network of Islamic radicals -- was born in Egypt and is positioned to have enough power to put Egypt on the Turkish path. The only obstacle is the Egyptian military.

The Obama administration is working to legitimize the Brotherhood in Egyptian politics. On February 1, the Obama team issued a statement saying that it supported the Brotherhood's role in a future Egyptian government because the White House expected it would renounce violence and recognize democratic goals. Erdogan's Turkish AKP party didn't start with a commitment to radical Islam but is gradually embracing it. When the Turkish Supreme Court tried to enforce their constitutional requirement for a secularist government, Erdogan faced them down.

The Erdogan government supported the attempt by Turkish activists to break the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip last year and condemned Israel for state terrorism when nine Turkish "activists" were killed in the Israeli action to stop their ship. Turkey has threatened that future blockade-runners will be accompanied by military escorts.

Turkey's descent into Islamic radicalism is slowed only by its once-secular military and by the cultural separation between Turkish and Arab peoples.

In Egypt, that cultural separation doesn't exist. Its military could prevent an Islamist government from taking hold. But that task is made immensely more difficult by Obama's efforts to legitimize the Brotherhood and by Clapper's bizarre statement.

Facts are all that matter in intelligence and analysis. Digging for facts, stealing them whenever possible, is the job of Clapper, Panetta and everyone working for them. An intelligence agency's job is done when it produces timely, accurate and well-analyzed facts to policy makers.

If an intelligence analyst or his boss imposes a political judgment on the facts before they are passed on to the policymaker, he is betraying his duty. And when an intelligence boss embraces his boss's political goals in disregard of the facts, as Clapper did, he is betraying the people who work for him.

Spies and intelligence analysts are people. They must believe that their hard work -- some working at great personal risk -- is valued by their bosses. To them, it matters little what the policymakers decide based on the intelligence they produce. When they hear a Director of National Intelligence speaking as if he were a White House spinmeister, they cannot trust that their work is taken seriously.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mi) is the new chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He's a former FBI agent, which means he's fact-oriented and methodical. Rogers should convene a series of hearings to determine how deep the political rot has penetrated our intelligence agencies.

There are a lot of problems besetting our intelligence community but none of them can be fixed without first curing the political infection that prevents them from functioning effectively. For Rogers, that must be Job #1.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.