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Blunt criticizes U.S. intelligence on N. African uprisings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 16, 2011 - WASHINGTON - As protests led to revolutions that overthrew the governments of Egypt and Tunisia in recent weeks, many observers faulted U.S. intelligence on the region as appearing to lag behind the rapidly unfolding events.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he wants to know why. And he also intends "to ask lots of other questions" about the intelligence assessments of likely future developments in the potentially explosive region.

"The [intelligence] community has to work harder and think harder about why they didn't know" what might happen in the North African revolutions, Blunt said in a conference call Wednesday with journalists. "Clearly, the intensity of what happened in Egypt had not been anticipated by the intelligence community."

Blunt's comments came on the same day that the Senate intelligence committee heard sometimes defensive testimony from U.S. intelligence officials defending the quality of their information on Egypt and elsewhere.

James R. Clapper Jr., the director of U.S. national intelligence, said intelligence agencies provided important assessments of the Egyptian developments, but conceded that improvements are needed in how those agencies assess rapidly developing situations.

"Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known or predicted," Clapper said. He said, however, that the intelligence community needs to better understand the role of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, in dissident movements.

Asked to assess Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Clapper said, "It's hard at this point to point to a specific agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood as a group," in part because it does not speak with a unified voice. He said he was not sure of its official stance on issues such as Iran and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, although it likely opposed the treaty.

At the same hearing, Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told senators that the Muslim Brotherhood was not "monolithic." However, he said that the intelligence community is scrutinizing the Brotherhood's activities and the role of its more outspoken members.

Panetta said the Brotherhood has "extremist elements," and "that's something we watch very closely to make sure that they are not able to exert their influence on the directions of governments in that region."

In the discussion with journalists, Blunt said he was unhappy with those responses on the Islamist group. "I thought the answers [at the hearing] about the character of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were very unsatisfactory."

Blunt said he was concerned "that our intelligence community still doesn't seem to have the kind of handle you would hope they would have on what could happen next in Egypt."

Hopefully, Blunt said, an "Egyptian model" will emerge -- in opposition to the al-Qaida model of violence against existing regimes -- that can end up producing "a secular participating democracy."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.