By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 10:18 PM
Senior U.S. lawmakers questioned Thursday whether the CIA and other spy agencies failed to give President Obama adequate warning of the unfolding crisis in Egypt, using a Senate hearing to accuse American intelligence services of being slow to grasp a revolution that took root on the Internet.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said after the hearing that the intelligence community's performance had been "lacking" despite the stakes surrounding a protest that threatens to "create a major maelstrom in the Middle East."
A senior CIA official testifying at the hearing defended the intelligence community's performance, saying that the nation's spy services had warned the Obama administration late last year that Egypt's government could fall.
"We warned of instability," said Stephanie O'Sullivan, who has been nominated to become the nation's No. 2 intelligence official. The hearing was on her nomination to be principal deputy director of the Office of Director of National Intelligence. But, she added, "we didn't know what the triggering mechanism would be."
The pointed exchanges suggest emerging tensions within the administration and on Capitol Hill over the United States' handling of the turmoil in Egypt and specifically about whether U.S. spy agencies were slow to recognize the threat.
O'Sullivan deflected persistent questions from senators attempting to pin down precisely when Obama was told that budding street protests in Cairo had the potential to topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"What I am interested in is when the president was told how serious this was," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who noted that O'Sullivan had been warned that the question would come up during her confirmation hearing.
O'Sullivan acknowledged that she had been made aware that she would face questions on the subject but "not in this level of detail."
Feinstein set a skeptical tone at the opening of the hearing, saying Obama and other policymakers deserved timely intelligence on major world events. Referring to Egypt, she said, "I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligations in this area."
After the hearing, Feinstein said she was particularly concerned that the CIA and other agencies had ignored open-source intelligence on the protests, a reference to posts on Facebook and other publicly accessible Web sites used by organizers of the protests against the Mubarak government.
Speaking more broadly about intelligence on turmoil in the Middle East, Feinstein said, "I've looked at some intelligence in this area." She described it as "lacking . . . on collection."
Feinstein said she was not familiar with the warnings last year that O'Sullivan mentioned.
The criticism triggered swift replies from intelligence agencies, which have frequently been accused of failing to anticipate emerging threats since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In the case of Egypt, a senior U.S. official said, the criticism is unfair.
"Analysts anticipated and highlighted the concern that unrest in Tunisia might spread well before demonstrations erupted in Cairo," said a U.S. official familiar with the intelligence on Egypt. "They later warned that unrest in Egypt would likely gain momentum and could threaten the regime."
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the official lacked the authority to discuss intelligence, added that analysts "have been highlighting the many variables at play and the potential for escalation . . . keeping top U.S. policymakers constantly up to date."
Asked about the senators' comments, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said: "Did anyone in the world know in advance that a fruit vendor in Tunisia was going to light himself on fire and start a revolution? No. But for decades, the intelligence community and diplomats have been reporting on unrest in the region that was a result of economic, demographic and political conditions."
O'Sullivan, a 15-year veteran of the CIA who previously headed its science and technology directorate, is widely expected to win confirmation and to become the highest-ranking woman in the intelligence community.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.