“But had the diplomatic and intelligence community been reporting for decades about simmering unrest in the region? About demographic changes including a higher proportion of youth? About broad frustration with economic conditions and a lack of a political outlet to exercise these frustrations? Absolutely,” Mr. Vietor said.
They specifically warned that unrest in Egypt would probably gain momentum, said another official familiar with the intelligence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
Of major concern to U.S. intelligence officials is the possibility that the political upheaval in Egypt could be “hijacked” by the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned but politically popular religious and political movement that provides social and charitable support for much of Egypt’s poor.
The Tunisian surprise, followed by the worsening events in Cairo, has led some intelligence officials to question whether the hunt for al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, has starved other parts of the intelligence arena of resources and hampered long-term strategic analysis and prediction.
“Both the American and Israeli intelligence communities will have to ask themselves what they missed in Tunisia and Egypt,” said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel. “Are we too fixated on terrorism and Iran today and not enough on the broad generational changes in the region?”
Retired CIA officer Michael Scheuer also defended the intelligence world for concentrating on the al Qaeda terrorism nexus from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. “Those are the people who are going to reach out and kill Americans,” he said.
Mr. Scheuer said the CIA has devoted resources to Egypt for years, fostering such a close working relationship with its intelligence service that the CIA regularly turned over suspects of Egyptian origin to its intelligence service, before there was a U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold suspects.
Former CIA analyst Charlie Allen said multiple national intelligence estimates had warned successive U.S. administrations that Egypt and Tunisia were brutal dictatorships with all the ingredients for revolt. The volatile situation outlined in those assessments of foreign nations included “youth bulges” of frustrated and often unemployed men under the age of 25, Allen said.
But Mr. Allen, speaking at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies’ annual terrorism review, said intelligence analysts cannot predict the spark that turns festering anger into full-scale revolt.
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