What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Egypt intel failure debate

Guys, the expression you are looking for is... Heisenberg's law - or, rather, what is commonly known as such; or alternatively as "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle."
The U.S. intelligence community is on the defence after some U.S. Senators, with Dianne Feinstein at the lead, are turning on them for their supposed failure to predict Egypt's future.
At the Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman wrote this in reaction the other day:
"“The ingredients of upheaval were there for a long time,” says Paul Pillar, who was the intelligence community’s top Mideast analyst from 2000 to 2005, “but it was impossible to predict in advance what particular catalyzing events would set stuff off.”
Publicly available information, like rapidly expanding opposition Facebook pages, hinted that popular anger in Egypt was bubbling over. The CIA declined to tell Danger Room what specifically it told the Obama administration about the Egyptian protests before last week. But Stephanie O’Sullivan, a longtime CIA official nominated to be intel chief James Clapper’s deputy, told a Senate panel yesterday that the agency secret warned Obama last year that anger at Mubarak’s regime was growing.
Echoing Pillar, Sullivan told senators, “We didn’t know what the triggering mechanism would be for that. And that [warning] happened at the end of the last year.” Back then, the agency concluded Mubarak was in an “untenable” situation."
And Andrew Exum observed:
"I served, though, on the Levant and Egypt team during the 2008-2009 CENTCOM Assessment Team. And looking back on that experience today, one of the things that has struck me is how long ago the U.S. government had identified the fall or death of Hosni Mubarak as a likely contingency to plan toward. Everyone knew this was going to happen eventually."
Of course, Senators politicising something like this would only be content with an intel report dated between 1 December 2010 and, say, 15 January 2011 saying "in Egypt, in next/this January, most likely on the 24th or the 25th of January, mass protests are expected that may eventually oust President Mubarak from power."
It is hard not to become involved in the same domestic politics that drives the process of the blame game. But a fairly scientific argument that may be safe to consider is Heisenberg's above mentioned principle. The more you observe something the more you may change it in the process. The level of observation required for an external agency to be able to foresee when mass protests may be organised, at least partly in secrecy and with much uncertainty, to subvert a regime in another country, would be so intrusive as to contradict with its own fundamental objective.
P.S. In this leaked memo, by the way, the US Ambassador in Cairo is writing, back in 2008, of a meeting with an April 6 activist who mentions things in preparation for the year 2011.

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