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Questions about quality of intel ahead of Mideast unrest

By Pam Benson and Barbara Starr, CNN
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Egypt: What did US intelligence know?
  • White House denied president displeased with intelligence he got about Tunisia
  • Adm. Mike Mullen: "To a great degree I think the timing of it certainly caught us"
  • Mullen said situation in Egypt is "really difficult challenge"

Washington (CNN) -- The violence from the streets of Tunisia to Egypt, and the U.S. struggle to find the right diplomatic response, is raising questions about whether the U.S. intelligence community failed to predict things were about to boil over.

The White House denied suggestions that the president was displeased with the level of intelligence he got ahead of the uprising in Tunisia.

The White House spokesman wouldn't discuss the private conversations between President Barack Obama and his aides, but said the president is satisfied with the intelligence he is receiving.

"The president expects in any case he'll be provided with relevant, timely and accurate assessment -- that's what he received," spokesman Robert Gibbs said Friday. "Rest assured that there are volumes of reports that have been read by this administration and past administrations about the potential for instability and unrest in Tunisia, in Egypt, and throughout the world," Gibbs said at the White House briefing.

A U.S. official privy to the information provided to policymakers insisted that the U.S. intelligence community warned after unrest in Tunisia that "the unrest could gain momentum and threaten the status quo."

However, Adm. Mike Mullen, America's top military officer, acknowledged on The Daily Show on Thursday night that the tsunami of protests across the Mideast caught U.S. officials in the wave. "To a great degree I think the timing of it certainly caught us as it moved from Tunisia and sort of across to the really difficult challenge that sits there right now in Egypt," said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

In fact, U.S. military officials have been telling CNN for days they have limited understanding of what is happening inside the Egyptian government. The military are depending partially on television broadcasts around the clock to get their latest information.

Congress also entered the fray. Some senators wanted to know if the intelligence agencies failed to realize tens of thousands of Egyptians would rebel after years of massive unemployment, social unrest and dissatisfaction with an authoritarian regime.

"I've looked at some intelligence in this area, which indicates some lacking," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-California, at a Thursday hearing.

Questioning a senior intelligence official, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said: "You can't just gaze into a crystal ball and try to guess what can't be predicted, but I do want to get a general sense of when you all told the president that we were faced with something that was as serious as what we have seen in recent days."

Appearing in front of the committee, CIA Associate Deputy Director Stephanie O'Sullivan said some recent events could not be predicted. "We warned of instability. We didn't know what the triggering mechanism would be for that, and that happened in the end of last year," said O'Sullivan at the hearing to consider her nomination to be the Deputy Director of National Intelligence.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, asked the intelligence community to provide a timetable within 10 days of what Obama was told about the developments in Egypt.

"While no one would expect that the IC (intelligence community) could have predicted the specific event that led to the initial unrest in Tunisia, the IC should have been able to provide assessments of the broader implications of that unrest, and we want to make sure that occurred," Chambliss told CNN on Friday.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the new Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent, cautioned against calling this an intelligence failure.

"Intelligence clearly helps us understand developments in places like Egypt, but is not a crystal ball. We've got to be realistic about its limits especially regarding the complex and interactive behavior of millions of people," said Rogers.

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