By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 12:08 AM
CIA Director Leon Panetta helped touch off an avalanche of erroneous expectations Thursday when he testified that there was a "strong likelihood" that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would step down by the end of the day.
Within minutes, senior aides to Panetta sought to tamp down the impact, saying he was merely referring to media reports. But by then, the comments had ricocheted around the Internet, underscoring U.S. confusion about events unfolding in Egypt, as well as the perils of publicly weighing in on such developments while serving as director of CIA.
The agency has been under pressure to help President Obama and other policymakers navigate the crisis in Egypt, even though its outcome is largely contingent on the internal deliberations of one man.
Panetta acknowledged the daunting aspect of that assignment in testimony before the House intelligence committee, saying that for spy services, "our biggest problem is always: How do we get into the head of somebody?"
Even within Egypt's government, there has been confusion about Mubarak's intentions. His defiant speech Thursday evening, in which he vowed to stay in office until elections are held in September, when his term ends, came after Egyptian military officials had signaled Mubarak's imminent departure earlier in the day.
Panetta, who had little intelligence experience before taking the CIA job two years ago, has been praised for his skill in leading a notoriously temperamental agency, and for handling public controversies with a deft touch.
His testimony Thursday as part of an annual hearing on national security threats, which coincided with new chaos in Cairo, seemed to mark a rare misstep.
Unlike other senior intelligence officials who were more circumspect in their comments on Egypt, Panetta did not hesitate in offering assessments of the rapidly shifting events.
After the committee chairman referred to media accounts predicting that the Egyptian president would step down, Panetta said, "I got the same information you did, that 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."
Shortly thereafter, a U.S. intelligence official said that Panetta "was clearly referring to press reports alluded to" by the panel chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
The "strong likelihood" language was quickly picked up by media outlets covering the event. The Washington Post carried the statement prominently on its Web site for much of the day and posted an article with a fuller account of Panetta's comments at midday.
The explanation that Panetta was citing news accounts protected him from being on the hook if the prediction turned out not to be true. But it also carried a more subtle public relations risk, suggesting that the CIA chief was not necessarily any better informed than others at Thursday's hearing, scanning their cellphones for breaking news.
When Panetta was asked later in the session to clarify his comments, he softened his assessment but did not indicate that he was simply relaying what he had read.
"Let me say, just to make very clear here, that I've received reports that possibly Mubarak might do that," Panetta said, referring to the prospect that Egypt's leader would step down. "We are continuing to monitor the situation. We have not gotten specific word that he, in fact, will do that."
Well after Mubarak's speech Thursday evening, agency officials continued to insist that Panetta's comments were based on news reports and not on analysis done by the CIA.
"His statements were not based on intelligence reports," said a senior U.S. intelligence official. "It would be wrong for anyone to suggest that the CIA didn't get things right on Egypt. The agency has been tracking developments very closely, and there were very real and rapidly unfolding changes over the course of the day in what has been - by any measure - an extremely fluid situation. That's the nature of the intelligence business, and U.S. intelligence agencies will continue to follow events in Egypt and the region closely."
The agency has faced questions about whether it adequately warned Obama that the protests in Egypt threatened Mubarak's regime. In a hearing last week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned whether the CIA and other agencies were paying adequate attention to Facebook and other Web sites activists have used to organize protests in Cairo.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. defended the intelligence community on Thursday - saying that spy services have produced thousands of reports in recent years warning of instability in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East - while acknowledging that it was unclear what events might trigger a government overthrow. "I'd give the intel a B-plus if not an A-minus," he said.
Panetta also offered a candid assessment of the CIA's performance, saying it provided abundant warning that Egypt's government could be toppled but acknowledging that the agency needs to do a better job of spotting specific vulnerabilities for governments and of monitoring the Internet's role in fomenting protests.
Panetta said he has established a 35-member task force at the CIA to examine the issue and instructed agency station chiefs in the Middle East to intensify their intelligence-gathering efforts in countries where governments are potentially vulnerable.
The stakes are substantial for the CIA, which relies heavily on intelligence services in Egypt and elsewhere in its counterterrorism operations. The threat of al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen is also considered one of the United States's most worrisome threats.
But Panetta pointed to limits in intelligence agencies' ability to see clear outcomes from chaos and to accurately predict what one person might do. Referring to the recent departure of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali - an event that precipitated the crisis in Egypt - Panetta said, "I think everybody assumed . . . that he was going to basically crush any kind of demonstration. I don't think he even knew he was going to get the hell out of town until he decided to jump on a plane and leave."