In an appearance before the House Intelligence Committee Thursday, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta testified that there was a "strong likelihood" that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would step down "within hours."
Panetta's remarks touched off a frenzied firestorm as word spread that Mubarak would be stepping down. It wasn't until Mubarak announced his intentions to stay Thursday evening that people realized Panetta's comments had been gravely mistaken. In addition, Mubarak specifically mentioned undue pressure from international partners encouraging him to step down, a potential direct rebuff of the Obama administration's assertion that his time was limited.
It was during this same congressional hearing Thursday that Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper declared that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was a "largely secular" organization.
But now that we know Mubarak isn't going anywhere, one can't help but wonder: On what incredibly flawed intelligence information did Mr. Panetta base this assumption?
As with Clapper's remarks, aides rushed to downplay Director Panetta's statements. According to the New York Times, aides admitted Panetta's statements were not based on any credible intelligence, but on media broadcasts:
Mr. Obama watched Mr. Mubarak’s speech on board Air Force One, returning from a trip to Michigan, the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said. As soon as he arrived at the White House, Mr. Obama huddled with his national security aides. The administration appeared as taken aback by Mr. Mubarak’s speech as the crowds in Tahrir Square. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon E. Panetta, testified before the House of Representatives on Thursday morning that there was a “strong likelihood” that Mr. Mubarak would step down by the end of the day.
American officials said Mr. Panetta was basing his statement not on secret intelligence but on media broadcasts, which began circulating before he sat down before the House Intelligence Committee. But a senior administration official said Mr. Obama had also expected that Egypt was on the cusp of dramatic change. Speaking at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, he said, “We are witnessing history unfold,” adding, “America will do everything we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy.”
So, in the end, not only did a significant portion of the American national intelligence team not know what was going on, but carelessness in assessing the situation sparked further panic and confusion. The Washington Post notes:
The explanation that Panetta was citing news accounts protected him from being on the hook if the prediction turned out not to be true. But it also carried a more subtle public relations risk, suggesting that the CIA chief was not necessarily any better informed than others at Thursday's hearing, scanning their cellphones for breaking news.
Thursday's missteps come on the heels of questions about whether the CIA adequately warned President Obama that protests may erupt in Egypt.
All in all, not a good day for American intelligence.