Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appears at a hearing of… (Tim Sloan / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Washington — The quick pace of protests and two regime changes in the Middle East over the last month has stretched the U.S. intelligence community as it scrambles to keep up with events and maintain crucial counter-terrorism contacts, top intelligence officials said Wednesday.
Intelligence analysts had extensive reports on the tense economic and social conditions in the region, but were unable to predict when that volatile mix would ignite enough unrest to topple a government, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
"We are not clairvoyant," Clapper said.
Over the last year, the CIA wrote more than 450 reports that discussed "dangerous" factors in the region, such as repressive regimes, economic stagnation and lack of freedoms. Since mid-December, the U.S. intelligence community has produced 15,000 reports from the Middle East and North Africa that followed what was being talked about in local media and on the Internet.
But the high volume of reports could not predict what would trigger the mass protests in Tunisia — a fruit vendor lighting himself on fire — or that President Zine el Abidine ben Ali would flee the country so suddenly on Jan. 14, Clapper said.
"I am convinced that the day he [Ben Ali] drove to work when that happened, he wasn't planning on doing that. That was a very quick decision on his part," Clapper said.
It was Ben Ali's departure that set in motion the wave of protests that spread to Egypt and other countries in the region, Clapper told the senators.
In Egypt, 18 days of intense street protests culminated with President Hosni Mubarak's ouster Friday.
To better predict what events might trigger such uprisings, the CIA has assembled a 35-member task force to analyze trends on social media websites and events as they develop, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told the committee. But there's a "massive amount of data," Panetta said, noting that there are 600 million Facebook accounts and 190 million Twitter accounts and that 35,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every day.
Having to commit more energy and analysts to understanding the political instability in the region has the "potential to take our eye off the ball with regards to the jihadi terrorists themselves," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Also, the unrest in the region means that local security services the U.S. depends upon for counter-terrorism information will be preoccupied with their nations' own internal strife, Cilluffo said.
In Yemen, for example, where terrorism plots against U.S. interests are believed to have originated, protesters have faced down the government in recent weeks. The U.S. concern is that as President Ali Abdullah Saleh deals with the protests, he "would basically not have his foot on the gas pedal as much on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," the Yemeni-based affiliate of the terrorist network, said a U.S. intelligence official who was not at the Senate hearing and spoke on condition of anonymity.
A lot of U.S. interests in the region are riding on the outcome of the political upheaval in Egypt, analysts noted.
"If Egypt goes well, if there is a transition to a stable democracy, it will be a huge blow to Al Qaeda," said Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former CIA analyst. "If that doesn't happen and the military backs away from the agreement or clamps down, those things will play to Al Qaeda's advantage."
Al Qaeda wants the Arab people of the Middle East to believe that its vision for an "Islamist utopia" is the only way for them to realize a better life, Pollack said. "If you get a stable democracy in Egypt, that hurts that," he said.
"If there is chaos in Egypt, there is no doubt Salafist jihadists will take advantage of that," he added.
Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, is Egyptian and as the head of the former Egyptian Islamic Jihad actively tried to overthrow Mubarak.
"You have to assume they are thrilled this happened and are almost certainly sending people to Egypt as quickly as they can to set up a situation where they can hijack the revolution," Pollack said.