What should the CIA do in Egypt?
The ghost of the 1979 Iranian revolution is very much on the minds of veteran intelligence officials as Egypt explodes in street protests.
Most historians agree that the CIA was largely in the dark when anti-American students, radical Islamists and mullahs ignited street protests in Tehran because the U.S.-backed shah had forbidden the CIA to have contact with opposition groups.
The CIA can’t let that happen again in Egypt, intelligence veterans say -- and it probably isn't.
Former CIA director R. James Woolsey says agency officials' main mission in Egypt today is “to make sure that they are getting information from all factions where they don't already have relationships and that they are not making the same mistake they did under the shah -- talking only to regime-approved people.”
“Hopefully,” echoes Jeffrey White, a former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Middle East intelligence division, “the CIA has contacts within the opposition or else is working to make them.”
There are “lots of important intelligence questions to be asked about their leadership, motivation, intentions, organization [and] external influences,” said White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The CIA's response should be to perform its usual missions of collecting information about, and providing assessments on, events in countries important to US interests, as is the case with both Egypt and Yemen," said Paul R. Pillar, who retired in 2005 as the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. "Anything beyond that in which the CIA might become involved would not be the 'CIA's response' but instead something done at the behest of policymakers."
“For now, we need to walk on both sides of street, stay close to the government and work the opposition hard for new sources and contacts,” added a senior former CIA operations official, speaking only on background because he conducts extensive business in the region.
“The priority is collection and analysis about what's going on,” said Richard K. Betts, a frequent consultant to U.S. intelligence agencies and director of the International Security Policy program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
“Our capacity to shape events by more active measures, such as covert action to support moderate elements of the opposition, is probably minimal, and more likely to backfire than to control events,” added Betts, author of “Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security.”
“Popular revolutions can hardly ever be contained or channeled effectively by foreign forces,” he said.
"The agency's work is pretty much over, as no part of the U.S. government can do much to influence the situation, unless [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton makes things worse by continuing to speak as if we are supporting the demonstrators," said Michael Scheuer, a former head of the CIA’s Osama Bin Laden unit. "Ditto for Yemen."
Mark Lowenthal, the CIA’s assistant director for analysis and production from 2002 to 2005, agreed about the limits of covert action.
“I do not see any role per se for the [intelligence community] other than tracking what is going on and giving the policy makers enough intell to make proper choices,” he said.
“I would be hard put to think of a covert action. Now, you might want to put out discreet feelers to some folks in the opposition, just to get in touch, sound them out, find out their intentions, etc. But you have to be careful not to [anger] the powers that be.”
Lowenthal added, “But I would make this approach via diplomats, not intelligence [agents].
In any event, Lowenthal said, “overt is better than covert, if at all available.”
All emphasized that any new or major CIA initative in Egypt--or elsewhere in the region--would be undertaken at the direction of the White House.
"Rule No. 1: the Intelligence Community does not create or have policies," said Lowenthal. "It carries out activities to support policy makers. So, there can be no 'CIA response' to Egypt and Yemen."
A major fear among policymakers is that the Cairo protests could open the door for the country's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, to take power.
Two years ago, Emile Nakhleh, the former head of the CIA’s political Islam strategic analysis program, said the United States should be reaching out to the Brotherhood in Egypt, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah, to “find common ground on daily issues, including issues of education, economics, commerce, health services, and community services.”
“To engage the Islamic world, the U.S. needs expertise—cultural, political, and languages, said Nakhleh, author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America's Relations with the Muslim World,” in an interview with Harpers blogger Ken Silverstein.
“The CIA was the first government agency that recognized this and systematically began to assign resources to acquire expertise on the Islamic World. This started before 9/11,” he also said. “The Agency’s directors in the Analytic section saw this challenge many years ago and proceeded to allocate resources to begin the process. But the bad news is that the CIA remains the only entity in the U.S. government that has cultivated this expertise.”
Nakhleh could not be reached for comment Friday.
"I would think that all of our officers across the Near East are spending a good amount of time on the streets trying to gauge the public mood and [assess] the chances of any more dominoes," said Scheuer, who has just authored a new biography of Osama Bin Laden.
"For myself, I hope that each [CIA chief of station] and/or the ambassador are writing commentaries for Washington to disabuse them of the idea that any of this unrest is going to lead to secular democracies in the region. We are either going to get either more ruthless dictatorships or--if they fall--a year or two of chaotic governments with patinas of democracy until the Islamists take over," Scheuer said.
[Remarks by Scheuer and Pillar added in 4pm update.]
| January 28, 2011; 1:45 PM ET
Categories: Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military, Politics | Tags: R. James Woolsey; Emile Nakhleh; Mark Lowenthal; Jeffrey White; Richard K. Betts; Paul R. Pillar; Michael Scheuer
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