By William Branigin and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 12:31 PM
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told lawmakers Thursday there is a "strong likelihood" that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could step down later in the day.
Testifying before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Panetta and other top U.S. intelligence officials defended their reporting on the volatile situation in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, saying they had laid out the tensions that have led to upheavals there.
Panetta concluded an opening statement to the committee by saying, "There is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening, which would be significant in terms of where the hopefully orderly transition in Egypt takes place."
Elaborating later on his remark in response to questions, Panetta said he had "received reports" that Mubarak was likely to step down by the end of the day. "We are continuing to monitor the situation," Panetta said. "We have not gotten specific word that he, in fact, would do that."
Panetta said the nature of the transition remains unclear but would likely lead to expanded power for Egypt's vice president and former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman.
"I would assume that he would turn over more of of his powers to Suleiman to direct the country and direct the reforms that hopefully will take place," the CIA chief said.
Panetta also warned of broader instability in the Middle East and the prospect of similar uprisings.
"There are a number of countries in the Arab world that reflect similar concerns," Panetta said. "The triggers, the factors that kicked off what happened in Egypt, could very well happen in other areas."
In his opening statement, Panetta told the committee, "We have long provided a series of reports that indicated the nature of the problems in that region: the regressive regimes, the economic and political stability, stagnation, the lack of freedoms, the need for political reforms." Last year alone, Panetta said, almost 400 reports were provided that described "the concerns that we saw in this region that had the potential for disruption."
Panetta announced that he has created a 35-member task force at the CIA to focus on what he described as the "triggers" that can ignite uprisings in the Middle East. He said he has also directed CIA station chiefs to improve collection of information on popular sentiments, the strength of the opposition and the role of the Internet in particular countries.
Panetta said a number of triggers came together in Egypt, including "large unmet expectations," large numbers of youth who are educated but unemployed, the role of the Internet in putting together protests quickly and the uncertain loyalty of the military.
The director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, told the committee that the U.S. intelligence community has been aware of tensions in the Middle East and North Africa for many years and has reported on them extensively. But, he added, "we are not clairvoyant."
Clapper said intelligence reporting "can reduce the uncertainty" for U.S. decision-makers "but not necessarily eliminate it."
Noting that questions have been raised about "whether the intelligence community has been tracking and reporting on these events effectively," Clapper said, "The answer, I believe, in short is yes."
He told the committee: "The intelligence community has provided critical intelligence throughout this crisis and has been reporting on unrest, demographic changes, economic uncertainty and the lack of political expression for these frustrations for decades."